Uzbek Cotton Farms Stick to Manual Labour

  • College students sent to pick cotton in Uzbekistan’s Khorezm region, September 2012. (Photo: IWPR)

As the harvest gets under way in Uzbekistan’s massive cotton industry, experts say the heavy reliance on human labour reflects a dire shortage of farm machinery.

In early September, the authorities mobilised public-sector workers, students and lecturers and sent them out to gather cotton.

Observers in Jizak and Khorezm provinces, in the centre and northwest of Uzbekistan, respectively, said they did not see children working in the fields. It is unclear whether this is the case in other parts of the country, and whether it reflects a radical change in policy. In previous years, child labour has been used on a wide scale in Uzbekistan, despite criticism from the international community and a boycott by major western retailers.

Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth-largest producer of cotton, with a harvest of around 3.5 million tons a year. Most of this is gathered by low-paid workers, often drafted in from the towns. Because this labour costs the state next to nothing, there is little impetus to buy harvesting machines.

Uzbekistan continues to impose tough production quotas on farmers, who are required to set aside land for cotton which they have to deliver to state purchasing firms that pay well under the market rate.

Tashpolat Yoldashev, an Uzbek political analyst now living in the United States, says other cotton-producing nations have long used mechanised harvesting, and achieved higher yields as a result.

"Nowhere else in the world do they work like they do in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields,” he said.

A farmer in the eastern Fergana region agreed that mechanisation was a good idea, but pointed out that no one had the money to invest in machines, and even if they did, they might not want to take the risk.

"There’s the constant danger that local government will arbitrarily confiscate the land we lease, without even giving a reason,” he said. "If the authorities wanted to mechanise the work, they could do it."

Qurban Yovshanov, an analyst based in Tashkent, suggested that commercial investors and donors could encourage a change of policy by making mechanisation a condition of funding, perhaps starting with a few pilot projects.

This article was produced as part of IWPR's News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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