'Voluntary work' as a pretext for exploitation in Uzbek cotton fields

Despite changes, the practice remains widespread and systematic, and involves people close to the government. People are paid US$ 0.10 per kilo. The salary is not enough to pay for meals and the workers get into debt. Even ministry and bank employees have been forced to work in the fields on pain of dismissal.


Tashkent (AsiaNews) – Despite past government claims that it would end of exploitative labour practices in the country’s cotton fields, including child labour, the practice, especially during the autumn harvesting season, continues to be widespread and systematic.

According to Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL), hundreds of activists across the country have reported cases of abuse and violations perpetrated under the pretext of "voluntary” work.

The Cotton Campaign, a worldwide attempt to curb the practice in 2010, had somehow contained the problem of forced agricultural labour.

In an attempt to counter the campaign, local authorities and wealthy landowners are getting conscripted workers to sign letters saying that the a “voluntarily” picking cotton for US.10 per kilo.

That nets the fastest and hardest working cotton pickers about one dollar a day in a country where the minimum monthly salary for menial workers is about 0.

The paltry payments are being dressed up by authorities in Tashkent as an "employment opportunity" for the jobless and needy families.

Uzbek Deputy Minister of Employment and Labour Bahodir Umrzakov said on September 5 that the harvest this year is dominated by poor families, unemployed people, and single mothers listed as "individuals in need.”

In reality, the wages earned in six full days by Uzbekistan's fastest cotton pickers is just enough to buy one kilogram of beef.

Those who don't work at top speed often go into debt during the two-month stints because the cost of the meals they eat during the harvest is deducted from the meager compensation they receive for their work.

There also are allegations that some owners of private "cluster farms" benefiting from Uzbekistan's forced-labour practices have links to senior officials in Tashkent, including relatives of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev.

In addition, employees of state banks and ministries were also forced to work in the fields under pressure and coercion.

"I was forced to go to the cotton fields against my own free will," a ministry employee said. "They said if you don't want to go to pick cotton, find someone instead" and pay them a monthly salary of 0, he said. “We can't afford it.”

An employee at a branch of the People's Bank in the Ak-Altyn district of the Syrdarya region told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that he was warned he would lose his job if refused to pick cotton or pay somebody else to take his place in the fields.

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