Uzbeks suffer fresh cotton ‘slavery’

Uzbeks suffer fresh cotton ‘slavery’

Historic Samarkand is a key cotton-producing province. Source: Eurasia Times

 

Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is in full swing and an estimated one million available hands have been conscripted: teachers, students, doctors, scientists and soldiers.

Imams across the country use their Friday prayer sermons to urge parishioners to go out into the fields. A Kashakadarya region religious leader, Bobohon Abdurahimov, said the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan distributed instructions on appeals to get the faithful to gather raw cotton.

“We explain to the faithful … that the gathering of cotton is a major state-level concern. Cotton is our national pride, that is why we need … a joint effort for the good of society. Muslims will please God if they help the state and farmers,” Abdurahimov said.

At the largest mosques in Tashkent, worshippers can contribute to the harvest by providing donations, which are then used to support cotton-pickers.

This month’s appointment of Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev as the interim president after the death of Islam Karimov provides an opportunity to reform the cotton industry.

Mirziyaev has played a key role in orchestrating the system of forced labour in the cotton industry.

During his 13 years as prime minister (2003-2016) he was directly responsible for Uzbek agriculture, argued Anti-Slavery International. Cotton is Uzbekistan’s most important and profitable export and it is the fifth largest producer in the world, while falling fuel prices are hitting its oil and gas sector. The annual profits from cotton sales are estimated at US$1.25 billion and are used chiefly for personal enrichment of the upper echelons of the government and to fund the oppressive state.

Every autumn, Mirziyaev personally supervised the entire course of the cotton harvest, and at his command the hokims or regional governors forcibly mobilised employees of public organisations to pick the crop.

The interim president not only set the annual cotton production quota, but also enforced compliance with the quota, the NGO claimed. In his previous roles as the governor of key cotton-producing regions Samarkand and Jizzak, he was known to show a firm hand to farmers who failed to fulfil their requirements.

On September 26 Tashkent’s labour ministry reiterated its prohibition on the use of forced and child labour during the harvest and that college students should not be forced to pick the crop.

“The organised recruitment of adults to pick cotton is widespread,” a 2015 International Labour Organisation mission reported. While many “seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity”, in other cases “certain indicators of forced labour have been observed”.

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