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Uzbekistan gets cracking on forced labour in cotton fields

Uzbekistan, the world’s fifth largest cotton exporter, has long relied upon forced agricultural labor but now that practice may be done away with. A decree has been issued categorically banning the use of children, along with education and healthcare workers, for harvesting operations.

The reform plan has two main pillars: mechanizing the harvest and increasing rates paid to cotton-pickers to attract more voluntary workers. Around two-thirds of the 3.7 million people involved in Uzbekistan’s 2015 harvest were voluntary, often rural women seeking an earnings boost.

Cotton-picking has been traditionally characterized as hashar, a term for voluntary labor that Uzbeks are expected to undertake for the good of the community. Driving teachers, doctors and students out of hospitals, schools and universities and into the cotton fields had been standard practice throughout Uzbekistan’s 26 years of independence.

Cotton has acquired almost existential value for the Uzbek economy – so much so that it has long been dubbed white gold. The deployment of forced labor and child labor has over the years prompted major international retailers to boycott Uzbek cotton. The country’s goal is to mechanize 80 per cent of the harvest by 2022. That is an ambitious target given that current levels are close to zero.