WASHINGTON — The International Labor Rights Forum and a nongovernmental organization filed a formal complaint Wednesday with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to halt the importation of cotton product from Turkmenistan, alleging all cotton goods harvested and manufactured in the country are made with forced labor.
The ILRF and the NGO, Alternative Turkmenistan News, both partners in the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights organizations, trade unions, business association and investors dedicated to ending child and forced labor in cotton production, called on Customs to classify cotton goods from Turkmenistan as illicit, issue a detention order on all cotton imports from the country and direct port managers to block their release into the U.S.
The complaint also requested Customs halt the importation into the U.S. of cotton duvet covers and pillowcases and shams from Ikea under the group’s “Nyponros” and “Malou” lines.
The groups charged that Ikea allegedly sources cotton goods, including linen products, from Turkmenistan under those two names.
The petition also flagged Gamby Global Inc., which the petitioners claimed operates as an importer and exporter of cotton fabric. The company is alleged to have imported 11 tons of cotton fabric from Turkmenistan as recently as February, according to the petition.
The petition “demonstrates that cotton products manufactured in Turkmenistan and purchased and imported into the U.S. by Ikea Group and Gamby Global Inc. are a prohibited class of merchandise,” the ILRF and ATN alleged.
Michael Scherer, president of Gamby, said the company imported 26,000 yards, not 11 tons as alleged in the complaint, of cotton fabric from a supplier in the United Arab Emirates that was made in Turkemnistan, but he stressed he did not know what the implications were.
“Of course, we totally did not understand the implications of where the goods were from and we are contacting our supplier in the UAE and telling them they can no longer use Turkmenistan cotton,” Scherer said. “I don’t want to deal with forced or slave labor. It was not known at all.”
Calls to Ikea were not immediately returned.
The complaint comes on the heels of a recent detention order issued by Customs on several products imported from a Chinese company for allegedly being made by forced labor.
The tougher Customs enforcement on imports made by forced labor overseas stems from enactment of legislation in February that removed a decades-old exemption limiting the authority of Customs to detain goods that were suspected of being made by forced labor.
For decades, Customs officials were prohibited from detaining imports if those products weren’t made in sufficient quantity in America to meet total U.S. demand. With the removal of the exemption, Customs can now detain all imported products suspected of being made by forced labor based on due diligence.
Labor groups aim to leverage that new law to stop suspected forced labor products from entering the U.S., which could have significant implications for the fashion industry that imports billions of dollars worth of goods.
“With the recently enacted reforms to strengthen the Tariff Act, Congress and the president have made it clear that the United States is serious about banning the importation of any goods produced with forced labor,” said Eric Gottwald, legal and policy director at ILRF. “We expect U.S. Customs will conduct a thorough investigation and effectively ban imports of cotton goods from Turkmenistan.”
The ILRF and ATN alleged the Turkmen government “forces farmers to deliver production quotas and tens of thousands of citizens to pick cotton, all under the threat of penalty.” Turkmenistan is the world’s seventh-largest cotton exporter, according to the groups.
“Manufacturers in Turkmenistan use only cotton produced with forced labor to manufacture cotton yarn, fabrics, linens, apparel and other cotton products,” the petition stated. “In Turkmenistan, all cotton is produced for a government monopoly through a state-order system for cotton production in which Turkmen citizens are forcibly mobilized to grow and harvest cotton by the government under menace of penalty.”
The U.S. Department of Labor has listed cotton from Turkmenistan on its “List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor” since 2009, according to the complaint. The State Department stated in its 2014 Human Rights Report on Turkemnistan that there were “reports of adult force labor in the cotton industry,” as well as reports that “some children picked cotton to earn extra money or in place of a parent,” according to the complaint.