Uzbekistan Starts Coercive Cotton-Picking Campaign

  By News Briefing Central Asia   - News Briefing Central Asia
25 Sep 10

As the cotton harvest got well under way in Uzbekistan in mid-September, the authorities are coercing growing numbers of schoolchildren as well as students and public sector workers to work in the cotton fields.

The authorities are using a number of tactics in an effort to keep up the pretence that the extra labour is entirely voluntary, especially since it is technically against the law to employ minors.

In the face of an international boycott of its cotton, Uzbekistan’s government has reinforced legal prohibitions on the use of child labour, but the practice continues – the only difference being that the authorities make more of an effort to conceal it.

“Schools and colleges are closed, and year-one children stay at home while teachers and other schoolchildren work in the fields,” Yelena Urlaeva, head of the Tashkent-based Human Rights Alliance said. “Children are told to bring a case with a bottle of water, a piece of bread and [suitable work] clothing to school. Everyone leaves school by the back entrance and go off to the fields, where they work from nine to six.”

Urlaeva said there was a heavier security presence in the cotton fields this year, with men in camouflage uniform posted around them.

Favourable weather and irrigation conditions suggest this year’s harvest will be a good one. The authorities have set a target of over 3.5 million tons of raw cotton. But to achieve this they will need to recruit more “volunteers” than ever. In Uzbekistan, most of the cotton crop is picked manually rather than by machines.

Public-sector workers have been dispatched to the fields in large numbers. Some state institutions are closed. A police station bears the sign, “Everyone is in the cotton field.”

In the central region of Jizak, human rights activist Rasuljon Tajibaev reports that all the markets in Pakhtakor district are closed. “Everyone is picking cotton,” he explained.

An observer in the capital Tashkent said doctors were under instructions not to issue sick notes or medical certificates to people seeking to be released from cotton-picking.

“There’s nobody to issue the certificates anyway,” added the observer, “as all the doctors are working in the fields themselves.”

Coercion is overlaid with propaganda, as the government appeals to the nation’s sense of patriotism.

“The authorities rely mainly on public-sector, medical and education staff, and on students and school children,” a media expert said. “In order to inspire people to patriotic work, the authorities are using the media.”

On September 15, Khorezmskaya Pravda, a state newspaper in northern Uzbekistan, published an appeal headlined “Cotton is Our Pride, Our National Wealth”.

“Every one of us should be working in the fields today,” the statement said.

As well as appealing to people’s sense of duty, the statement said they would get 120 soms, about seven US cents, for every kilogram of cotton they gathered – about the same as last year.

A newspaper editor in Jizak said it was standard practice for local government to require the press to carry such statements.

Muslim clerics in the eastern Andijan region have been drafted in to support the campaign. An article in a local newspaper said “picking every gram of cotton is a sacred duty for every Muslim”.

An observer in Khorezm region argues that the authorities are “using this rhetoric to conceal their interest in cheap labour from coerced workers”.

Some people are so used to the annual cotton campaign that they see nothing wrong with it.

Pointing proudly to colourful billboards bearing the message “Cotton 2010” by the roadside, an education-sector employee in a Tashkent suburb insisted there was no question of coercion.

“We’ve been picking cotton for 20 years,” he said. “And our children will gather it.”

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