Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Coercive Labour for Uzbek Cotton

Young children no longer seen, but older pupils still press-ganged for arduous autumn harvest.
By IWPR Central Asia
  • Cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, autumn 2013. (Photo: IWPR)
    Cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, autumn 2013. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Secondary schools, colleges and universities send their students out to the fields. (Photo: IWPR)
    Secondary schools, colleges and universities send their students out to the fields. (Photo: IWPR)
  • The work is hard as picking is done by hand, but refusing to take part is not really an option. (Photo: IWPR)
    The work is hard as picking is done by hand, but refusing to take part is not really an option. (Photo: IWPR)

Since Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest began in mid-September, coercion has been used on a wide scale to force people to take part. 

Last year, the government said it had made it totally impossible for child labour to be used. The move was in response to a boycott by major western clothing manufacturers and retailers in place since 2007, prompted by the use of children as young as eight to pick the crop.

Local observers say younger children seem to be absent, but the authorities are still forcing high-school pupils aged 15 to 18 out to work, along with university and college students and public-sector workers.

Uzbekistan’s Cotton Harvest, September 2013
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The academic year started on September 1, and by the middle of the month, classes stopped at secondary schools and in higher education as whole classes were packed off to the fields.

One 16-year-old school pupil interviewed while he was picking cotton in the Buka district of Tashkent region, described the tough living conditions for those sent out to work.

“Almost all of us sleep on mattresses on the ground. Not many of us have a camp-bed or a bed. The building we are in is in a dangerous state. The corridor floors have fallen through and the walls are filthy,” he said. “We get up at five in the morning and we’re in the fields by seven. We finish picking at five or six in the evening. It’s two or three kilometres to get to work and we come back on foot as there aren’t any vehicles. We don’t get any days off.”

He added that the daily quota was set at 35 or 40 kilogrames of raw cotton, which at 230 soms (about ten US cents) a kilo was just about enough to cover the cost of food.

“Hardly anyone earns any money – most of us are earning for the food,” he said.

The food itself consists of potatoes, pasta, barley grains and cabbage, with hardly any meat, and bread and tea for breakfast.

“They cook it in unrefined cottonseed oil and a lot of people get heartburn or feel ill because of that,” the schoolboy said. “I can’t eat food like that so I buy my own food in the local shop, out of my own money.”

To avoid allegations of coercion, the authorities introduced a new practice this year, making everyone sign a statement that they were going voluntarily.

Nargiza, a 17-year-old lycee student, said teachers assembled her class and gave them a lecture on patriotism before sending them off to work.

“They gave everyone a piece of paper and asked them to write a note to the effect that they were taking part in the cotton harvest voluntarily,” she said. “They said our participation part would definitely be taken into account and might reflect on our academic process. At the same meeting, they warned that if a commission arrived and someone came up and started questioning us, we were to say the conditions were good and we were there of our own free will.”

The “commissions” referred to by Nargiza are inspection teams from the International Labour Organisation (IOM), which the government this year allowed to carry out monitoring for the first time ever, as a way of proving child labour and other forms of coercive work were not being used.

The IOM has eight teams deployed around the country, but local journalists and human rights defenders said they had no way of meeting the inspectors, who were effectively under guard.

“Each comission has an Uzbek official attached to it so that there’s no direct contact with its members,” one human rights defender in Tashkent said.

Another activist said he understood that the government had made it a condition for the IOM visit that there must be no contact with local people.

“It isn’t clear how one should go about contacting commission members,” he said. adding that indirect efforts through foreign embassies had failed because they too had no way of getting in touch with the inspectors.

Tashkent resident Ibrahim described how he was made to sign a waiver during the summer, while his 15-year daughter was applying for college.

“They made me sign a form saying that I agreed that my daughter’s participation in the cotton harvest was a mandatory condition for her attending college,” he said. “They refused to accept our [application] documents until I signed the form. There was nothing I could do about it it. All the colleges and lycees in the city set the same condition.”

Few students or parents are brave enough to refuse outright. As a college lecturer from a town in Tashkent region explained, such defiance would produce dire warning’s about the student’s academic future.

It is, however, possible to avoid buy one’s way out of both the harvest and negative repercussions.

“At our college, anyone who didn’t want to go and pick cotton had to pay 500,000 soms [around 240 dollars]. Those who skipped off later were told to pay half that amount,” the college lecturer said. “It costs different amounts to buy yourself out of the cotton harvest at various colleges, ranging from 300,000 to 800,000 soms.”

Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth-largest producer of cotton, with a harvest of around 3.5 million tons a year.

Farmers are private leaseholders, but they continue to be bound by a Soviet-style quota system under which they have to set aside most of their land and grow at least 1.5 tons of cotton per hectare or face the consequences. They have to sell the harvest to government-controlled buyers at low prices, and the state then sells the cotton on the international market at a hefty mark-up.

Even by recruiting their family members, farmers cannot hope to bring in the harvest by themselves, so the state provides the extra hands by drafting in students, school pupils and public-sector employees from the towns.

Because this labour costs the state next to nothing and hand-picking is in any case seen as a better method, there is little impetus to provide farmers with the harvesting machines which they cannot afford to buy for themselves.

Names of interviewees withheld for security reasons.