Uzbekistan's Controversial Cotton Harvest ‘Feeds the Regime, not Citizens’

Buses take children and adults alike to pick cotton in Uzbekistan's fields. Screenshot taken from video uploaded by Kudrat Babadjanov.

Buses take children and adults alike to pick cotton in Uzbekistan's fields. Screenshot taken from video uploaded by Kudrat Babadjanov.

The cotton-picking season in Uzbekistan has officially finished, but according to reports, teachers and schoolchildren continue to labor in the fields. Provincial leaders are known to apply physical force against farmers failing to meet cotton targets, while a recent report suggests that income from cotton production may bypass the state budget. Few people associated with the authoritarian republic are surprised by the report's findings. 

Uzbekistan is famous for forced labor and child labor in particular. In 2009 a publication by The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London claimed that at least 86% of schools in the districts encountered by the study during the 2008 cotton season were subjected to compulsory recruitment requests from the government. Recruits were children between the ages of 11 and 14, who were expected to gather between 15-70 kilograms of cotton per day depending on their age and the stage of the harvest. Six years later, despite the relative success of an ongoing campaign to force manufacturers to boycott Uzbek cotton, little has changed inside the country. Uzbekistan was the sixth biggest producer in the world last harvest, and kids are still contributing to the cause. 

A report produced last month reveals that income from the harvest goes into an opaque extra-budgetary sovereign wealth fund called Selkhozfond, about which almost nothing is known. The authors of the Soros working paper Uzbekistan's Cotton Sector: Financial Flows and Distribution of Resources, who cooperated with a former government official in producing the report, had to make full use of their sources just to learn the full name of Selkhozfond director Shukrullo Umurov.  

In an interview with, a news service run by Uzbek expatriates, one of the report's authors, Alisher Ilkhamov said he was sure Uzbek President Islam Karimov was the fund's main beneficiary.
Chip, a commenter on, agreed:
Каримов бессовестно нарушает уголовный кодекс по статьям “мошенничество” “присвоение государственнного имущества” и т.д. Вся экономика построена как криминальная. Всё наворованное отправляется в банки Запада, и поэтому “белых и пушистых” банкиров можно рассматривать как главных виновников всех бед страны

[Uzbek President Islam] Karimov shamelessly violates the criminal code under articles such as “fraud,” “appropriation of state property” etc. The entire economy is built like a mafia economy. Stolen money goes into Western banks. These “white and fluffy” bankers bear the guilt for all the country's ills.

Another user of the service, Nablyudatel, demands Uzbekistan reforms a cotton sector that is toxic from both an ecological and social point of view.
Нужно ли реформировать отрасль, которая постоянно испытывает такие напряжения и всё больше разрушает экологическую среду? В климатических условиях Узбекистана гораздо более прибыльным и экологически безопасным было бы выращивать и перерабатывать овощи и фрукты, а хлопок – это культура рискованная для земледелия страны. 

Should we not reform an industry that is constantly experiencing stress and increasingly destroys the  environment? In Uzbekistan's climatic conditions, it is much more profitable and environmentally friendly to grow and process fruits and vegetables, and cotton is risky for the farming culture of the country. 

However, the user adds:
Но реформировать хлопковую отрасль (а тем более отказываться или резко уменьшать площади под хлопок) режим Каримова не в состоянии, потому что, как справедливо указано в статье, хлопок кормит этот режим. Именно режим, а не граждан страны.

Karimov's regime is unable to reform the cotton sector (moreover, to cut it down or reduce cotton production) because, as correctly pointed out in the article [report], cotton feeds the political regime, not citizens of the country.

The Uzbek government remains deaf to calls not to use children in the harvest. Moreover, RFE/RL's Uzbek service Ozodlik reported October 29 that some hokims [heads of regional administrations] beat farmers who do not fulfil their production quotas.  
Ilkhamov and his co-author Bakhodyr Muradov say such behaviour is motivated by the hokims’ fear of losing their jobs:
For failure to fulfil targets, local hokims risk losing their position and farmers are subject to a range of economic and administrative sanctions, including criminal prosecution and the reallocation of the land they farmed in favour of other farmers.
In a blog on “Why do I have to collect cotton?”, journalist Kudrad Babadjjanov, explains why Uzbek people continue to engage in gruelling, unpaid work for the government each year:
согласно 37 статье конституции страны, принудительный труд запрещается. И этот запрет подкреплен седьмой статьей Трудового Кодекса Республики Узбекистан. Но что если такой приказ отдает премьер-министр, а то и президент, а привлекается многомиллионное население? А если те самые, кто написал эти законы, те же прокуроры, милиция, спецслужбы и армия направлены на тебя, чтобы ты собирал хлопок – куда денешься?

Article 37 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uzbekistan as well as article 7 of the Labor Code  prohibit forced labor. But what if an order [to collect cotton] is given by the Prime-Minister or even by the President, and many millions are obeying? And what if the same people who wrote these laws, the prosecutors, the police, the security services and the army are turned on you in order to force you to collect cotton – what will you do then? 

An commenter, A.Sh., offered his own response to Babadjanov's original question:
“Почему я должен собирать хлопок?” Потому что его насадили. Нужно отказаться от выращивания хлопка вообще в Узбекистане. Хлопчатник плантационная техническая культура, требующая непрерывного ухода и много воды.
А любые плантации требуют рабов и колониальной системы управления. В Узбекистане с его многочисленным населением нужно выращивать продукты питания. Но тогда рухнет этот колониальный режим. Можете представить Узбекистан без хлочатника? 

“Why do I have to collect cotton?” Because it was planted. We need to abandon cotton cultivation in Uzbekistan completely. The cotton crop is a plantation crop that requires constant care and water. All plantations require slaves and a colonial system of management. Uzbekistan should be growing food to feed its large population instead. But then the colonial regime would collapse. Can you imagine Uzbekistan without cotton?

In part due to the work of the Cotton Campaign, over 130 major clothing brands have boycotted Uzbek cotton, including H&M, Levis, Lacoste and Adidas. Mass cotton cultivation in Central Asia began under the Russian Empire and accelerated under the Soviet Union. To a lesser extent, Uzbekistan's neighbours Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have also faced criticism for forcing citizens — including children — to participate in the annual cotton harvest.

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