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

Uzbekistan Poised for Cotton Boom

Dazzled by the prospect of soaring profits on the world cotton market, the Uzbek government seems unlikely to share its good fortune with the impoverished workforce.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

While Uzbekistan prepares for a record cotton boom this year, the country's two million pickers still live and work in conditions of abject poverty.


Uzbekistan is the second biggest cotton-exporter in the world (after the USA) and the fifth largest producer. With prices expected to soar by as much as 17 per cent in the coming season, the influx of hard currency earnings is likely to give a dramatic boost to the national economy.


But the vast local workforce has little hope of sharing in the expected profits.


Ashirmat Karimov, leader of a work brigade in the village of Akhunbabaev, near Tashkent, says, "We work harder than coal-miners. From planting in April until the November harvest, I spend up to 15 hours a day in the field."


From 1996 to 1999, the collective farm workers were paid no salary at all. "We worked from early morning to late evening for free, even though we'd been promised up to 5 sum (less than a cent) a kilogramme," says Karimov.


The situation has improved over the past year. "In 1999, we were paid 10 sum (1.5 cents) a kilogramme. One person can pick around 100kg of cotton in a day, if he works really hard. That means he can make up to 1,000 sum, which about $1.50 a day."


According to the Uzbek agriculture ministry, 75 per cent of the cotton is picked by hand with entire rural communities taking part in the harvest.


In the village of Akhunbabaev, even the children trudge daily to the fields in a frantic effort to meet quotas set by the collective farms. "If I don't fulfill the plan, they'll have my head on a plate," said the chairman of one local plantation.


Sayera Ashiralieva picks the cotton together with her three children, aged between nine and 13. In district schools, lessons are stopped in the higher classes for the duration of the harvest.


"They can continue their studies when the entire crop has been brought in, maybe in November," says Sayera. "In our village, there isn't a single family which doesn't harvest cotton. When people from the ministry count the number of workers, they often don't notice that our children work alongside us, and sometimes even the elderly."


But, after working all last season, from sowing to harvest, Sayera was unable to earn enough to buy winter clothes for her children.


The picker's predicament is not high on the agenda of a government dazzled by the prospects of vast profits over the coming year. Following a marked depletion in cotton stocks worldwide, production figures are paramount.


The start of this year's cotton season coincided with the Cotton 2000 conference, held in Tashkent earlier this month. Ray Butler, editor of Cotton Outlook magazine, told delegates that prices in the 2000-2001 season should rise from 53 cents to 62 cents per pound.


He said that world stocks had been severely depleted - particularly in China which has begun to consume more cotton than ever before. Other major producers, such as India and Pakistan, are actually importing raw cotton from abroad.


Victor Dyachkov, spokesman for Uzbekistan's Uzkhlopokpromsbyt, commented, "India, China and Pakistan were holding the world cotton market in suspense, threatening to dump their vast cotton stocks simultaneously. Now these countries are focusing on cotton processing and the manufacture of finished goods."


According to figures released by the Uzbek ministry for foreign trade, in 1999, when the price of cotton fell to an all-time low of 44 cents per pound, the former Soviet republic earned $887 million from the sale of 950,000 tons. In 1997, Uzbekistan made nearly double this figure from a similar volume of raw cotton.


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR's Project Editor in Tashkent.