Asia

Uzbekistan's cruel cotton conundrum

Much of Uzbekistan's cotton is picked by hand Image copyright Urlaeva
Image caption Much of Uzbekistan's cotton is picked by hand

Come autumn and a familiar scene dominates Uzbekistan's countryside.

The vast cotton fields are busy with workers, picking the country's most important crop. Among them are doctors and nurses, accountants, teachers and college students.

As a result many schools and colleges are closed and even hospitals are affected.

And this year it's become clear that even foreign companies operating in Uzbekistan are being asked to chip in.

More than 20 years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan continues its practice of mobilising people for the cotton harvest.

In Soviet times, swathes of Uzbek agricultural land were turned into vast cotton plantations, irrigated by water diverted from major rivers - a system which in turn led to the Aral sea ecological disaster.

Mass mobilisation was standard practice with anyone resisting the effort branded as unpatriotic.

That too hasn't changed. But while Uzbeks have long been used to the system, foreign investors find themselves being asked to contribute as well, even though there is no formal demand to pay up.

Image copyright Urlaeva
Image caption Campaigners say that workers are issued with daily quotas but receive little pay

Challenging and difficult

This year, the Swedish-Finish mobile phone operator TeliaSonera, which operates Uzbekistan's second largest mobile company Ucell, was reported to be making payments towards the cotton harvest.

The news emerged after TeliaSonera shareholders went to Tashkent on a fact-finding mission.

Carina Lundberg Markow, a representative of insurance company Folksam, told BBC Uzbek that Ucell staff outlined how companies in Uzbekistan had three options of sponsoring the cotton harvest.

"One was providing personnel to send out on the fields picking cotton," Ms Markow said. "The second option was to pay for employees of other companies."

Ucell, she said, didn't do either of these, but went for another option.

"The third way was to provide the workers in the cotton fields with - as they call it - 'catering and entertainment'. And they told us that this activity costs them about $50,000 per year."

Ms Markow says she was quite shocked by the revelation and questioned whether such sponsoring activity was in line with TeliaSonera's business ethics.

In a response, TeliaSonera told Swedish news agency TT that the company had tried to deal with the situation as best they could in a "challenging and difficult market".

Image copyright Urlaeva
Image caption This 66-year-old woman is working on behalf of her daughter-in-law who has small children
Image copyright Urlaeva
Image caption People from all walks of life are drafted in like this medical worker from the Tashkent area

Uzbekistan is no stranger to criticism over the way it conducts its cotton business.

In recent years, a relentless international campaign accused the authorities of condoning the extensive use of child labour.

Dozens of international retailers and fashion brands signed up to a boycott of Uzbek cotton.

Eventually the Uzbek authorities ordered a stop to the recruitment of people under 16 earlier this year.

But there is growing evidence - collected by independent monitoring groups - of the widespread use of cheap labour instead, with people from all walks of life coerced into taking part in the harvest.

Life brought to a standstill

The result is that public life is paralysed, especially in rural areas. Celebrations and even weddings are discouraged.

Markets, shops and teahouses are closed. On the sealed gates of some markets one can see a piece of paper simply stating: "Market is closed - everyone is at cotton."

The Uzbek-German Forum, a monitoring group based inside the country, says that local businessmen are hiring day workers to pick cotton instead of themselves.

"We are sending labourers to pick cotton for us, and even then we are not allowed to open our shops until 5pm. If we don't send labourers, police won't let us open our shops at all," said a trader from Djizzakh who wanted to stay anonymous.

But the bulk of the burden falls on public sector workers.

Cotton production officials require that public-sector institutions should send up to 70% of their staff to the fields.

A hospital paramedic from Kashkadarya region told the Uzbek-German Forum he'd been threatened with dismissal.

"Our head doctor says that if we don't pick cotton we will be fired," the medical worker said. "I'm a paramedic, I should help my patients. But at the moment 80% of our personnel are picking cotton here."

Image copyright Urlaeva
Image caption Working conditions are often hard, with high temperatures throughout much of the harvest

Poor conditions

Many people involved in cotton picking complained to BBC Uzbek about cramped living spaces, shortages of drinking water and poor sanitary conditions.

BBC Uzbek received footage from one student showing a classmate filling a plastic bottle from an irrigation channel and then drinking from it.

People who spent most of their lives as city dwellers find themselves hundreds of kilometres away from their homes living in wooden barracks.

Although government posters show combine harvesters in the cotton fields, few actually operate and around three million tonnes of Uzbek cotton is collected manually.

A college teacher from Syrdarya says that bullying from supervisors is common place too.

"A young man assigned by the local government shouted at women as old as his mother to shut up. He yelled so much that everyone became quiet. So they frighten us like that."

The system of mobilising a temporary workforce is reminiscent of the Soviet planning system and appears at odds with modernisation efforts in other spheres of the Uzbek economy.

But some observers say that inefficient methods persist in the Uzbek cotton industry because it allows the authorities to keep costs down, using an almost free work force to increase profit margins for the country's elite which benefits from cotton sales abroad.

Matthew Fischer Daly, the co-ordinator from New York based Cotton Campaign, an organisation monitoring reports told BBC Uzbek that bribery is often the only way of getting around harvesting duties.

He says that one Uzbek woman picked cotton first as a schoolgirl, then while at college and university and finally as a qualified teacher.

When she became a mother this year the only way to be able to stay home and look after her baby was by paying a bribe equal to her monthly salary.

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