Roughly one out of every five adults in Uzbekistan was coerced into picking cotton during the just-completed harvest season, according to a November 14 statement distributed by the Cotton Campaign, an activist coalition seeking to put an end to the government’s use of forced labor.
Cotton Campaign researchers estimate that about 4 million adults, many of them state employees, were pressed into gathering cotton this harvest season in Uzbekistan. According to the CIA’s most recent estimate, Uzbekistan has an overall population of almost 29 million, a quarter of which is under the age of 14. An additional 21 percent is between the ages of 15 and 24. Those estimates, along with the Cotton Campaign figure, would suggest that at least 20 percent of the over-18 population spent time in the cotton fields this fall against their will.
The Uzbek government has faced international condemnation for its widespread use of forced child labor in cotton harvesting. In recent years, however, authorities have shifted the burden, reducing the number of children compelled to leave school and pick cotton, and replacing them with fresh legions of adults.
“Reducing the number of children in the fields by forcing even more adults to work against their will is not sufficient. The government needs to dismantle the forced labor system,” a Cotton Campaign statement quoted Umida Niyazova, the director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, which prepared a preliminary report on the harvest.
Uzbekistan’s practice of sending forced laborers to pick the cotton harvest causes a furor abroad every year. But now there are rumblings of discontent from within the country.
National University students have taken the unusual step of publicly complaining about being forced to help with the harvest, publishing an open letter to the prime minister and law-enforcement agencies on the Dunyo Uzbeklari (World of Uzbeks) opposition website.
Third-year male journalism students were ordered to the cotton fields by the rector and faculty deacon, says the letter. It is addressed to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev; the prosecutor’s office; the National Security Service (SNB); the Higher Education Ministry; and the university rector, Mirzo Mukhamedov.
“Surely the legislation of Uzbekistan does not mention the responsibility of students for taking part in the cotton harvest?” the outraged students (who remained anonymous, no doubt fearing repercussions) ask. “Of course not!”
Students who do not wish to pick cotton could cough up 300,000 sums to buy themselves out, the letter said. That is equivalent to around $125 at the official exchange rate, or two months’ worth of a student’s living grant.
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest relies on forced labor to help farmers meet government-set quotas.
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups have reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children (including students) and adults. Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
With the arrival of November, the serfs trickle home from Turkmenistan’s cotton fields. But a culture of state employees being forced to labor in menial jobs continues throughout the year, says an annual monitoring report. As they wait for the fields to bloom again with “white gold,” low-skilled municipal workers such as janitors and security guards are obliged to do free housekeeping for Turkmen bureaucrats, and to travel to faraway cities to participate in cleanups for the state, the report alleges.
Turkmenistan’s Central Asian neighbor Uzbekistan is usually the focus of international flak for mobilizing its citizens – notably students – to harvest cotton each fall. But totalitarian Turkmenistan, which produces more cotton per person than Uzbekistan, is just as keen on exploiting its bloated public sector for field hands, according to the October 14 briefing, published by Alternative Turkmenistan News (ATN), a service run by Turkmen exiles who partner with Amnesty International and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee.
Drawing on domestic accounts, the second annual report provides an important insight into Turkmenistan’s labor market. It pays particular attention to Turkmenistan’s low-paid state employees who have limited means to defend their rights in a country where de facto unemployment is high and cowed government workers can be replaced easily.
Eleven citizens lost their lives as a result of the forced-labor system this year. The tragic losses included Tursunali Sadikov, a 63-year-old farmer who died of a heart attack after being beaten by a Department of Internal Affairs official, and Amirbek Rakhmatov, a six-year-old schoolboy who accompanied his mother to the cotton fields, napped in a trailer, and suffocated when cotton was loaded on top of him.
“It is the largest number of people who have died in a year, as far as I know,” Matt Fischer-Daly of the Cotton Campaign told the Toronto Star. “There have been tragedies but [I’ve] never seen a year with so many deaths.”
Though there were fewer young children mobilized than in years past, authorities “systematically” coerced high school students, university students, and adults into the fields, the reports says. They are part of an opaque chain of transactions that concludes with authorities buying cotton from farmers at artificially low prices and selling it abroad at a huge markup for hard currency. Researchers found that students were threatened with expulsion if they did not comply and adults told they would be fired if they refused.
Uzbekistan stands to earn $1 billion annually exporting cotton, an industry that has planted the Central Asian country prominently on the inaugural Global Slavery Index published by an Australian watchdog this week.
Citing officials, Uzreport news agency reported on October 17 that at the ninth annual Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent on October 16 and 17, Uzbekistan signed contracts to export 680,000 metric tons of cotton fiber and textile products worth $1 billion a year.
In awkward timing, while Uzreport was hailing the cotton contracts as "a solid basis for future long-term, sustainable and mutually beneficial cooperation between Uzbekistan and foreign countries," the Brisbane-based Walk Free Foundation published its inaugural Global Slavery Index.
During the annual cotton harvest, Uzbekistan “is the country with the second highest prevalence of modern slavery (after Mauritania) in the world,” the accompanying report said. The index ranked Uzbekistan 47th globally overall.
Uzbekistan relies on forced labor to pick the cotton, which is then purchased from farmers at artificially low prices and sold abroad for hard currency. The State Department said this year that Tashkent “subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy.”