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RFE/RL Documents Uzbek Harvest Of Oppression

Uzbekistan - young people (possibly children) pick cotton during the harvest. Screen grab. Sept. 20, 2013.
Uzbekistan - young people (possibly children) pick cotton during the harvest. Screen grab. Sept. 20, 2013.
Uzbekistan has long been notorious for reaping the riches of its cotton fields on the backs of its citizens—and children—with forced labor in often deplorable conditions.

Despite the authorities’ pledges this year of increased transparency, the 2013 cotton harvest has been the “nastiest” to date, according to RFE/RL Uzbek Language Service Director Alisher Sidikov.

Radio Ozodlik, as the service is known locally, broke numerous stories of abuse in the cotton fields this year with the help of an unofficial network of sources, mostly university students forced to pick cotton themselves. They circumvented Uzbekistan’s repressive media censorship to report what they saw in the field, sending photos and updates via smartphone instant messaging.

Every year when cotton season rolls around, citizens of the world’s second largest cotton exporter, including teachers, doctors, and students, are forced to pick cotton under threat of punishment. According to Human Rights Watch, workers live in fields for weeks at a time in terrible conditions. Access to drinking water and food is spotty, and safety takes second place to production, making injuries and deaths a common occurrence.

Ozodlik was the first to report September 16 on the death of a 17-year-old girl named Muhlisa Rajabova who was electrocuted when she accidentally touched an electric fence while washing her hands in an irrigation ditch.

In a separate incident, Ozodlik investigated a tip received by text message
that on September 15, six-year-old Amirbek Rakhmatov had suffocated under a load of cotton while sleeping in a trailer. His death was confirmed to RFE/RL by provincial law enforcement officials September 19.

This year Uzbek authorities invited monitors from the International Labor Organization to observe conditions during the harvest and interview laborers, but Ozodlik reporters received several messages from their contacts in the fields saying authorities were coercing laborers to hide the truth about conditions in the fields and to tell the monitors they were picking cotton voluntarily.

'Government-driven Bullying'

Officials in the Qashqadaryo regional health-care department told RFE/RL journalists late on September 18 that a student at a teacher-training university in southern Uzbekistan had been accused of stabbing four fellow students, killing one and injuring the other three during cotton harvesting. Officials said the incident appeared to have been triggered by bullying.

Sidikov explains that the authorities demand students pick as much as 60 kilograms of cotton per day, an impossible amount to harvest by hand, creating a situation that turns students against each other as the older bully the younger into giving them their cotton.

“Bullying in the cotton fields is basically government-driven bullying,” said Sidikov. “The government bullies institutions to harvest cotton – including universities – which in turn bully students, and older students bully the younger students.”

A photo of an agreement to provide food for cotton pickers that a small business owner says he was forced to sign.
A photo of an agreement to provide food for cotton pickers that a small business owner says he was forced to sign.
Small business owners also complained to Ozodlik of bullying. For the first time this year, small business owners said they were told by representatives of the mayor’s office in the capital Tashkent that they must pay 1,500 USD to fund meals for field workers. Since often the food reportedly never reached workers, the business owners said the government was using the harvest as a pretext to extort money.

The Risks Of Speaking Out On Abuses

The danger of reporting on abuses and lack of security in the cotton fields is evidenced by the September 21 disappearance of journalist Sergei Naumov, who is known for his intrepid reporting about forced labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry. Naumov was later found in custody and was sentenced to 12 days in jail, allegedly for assaulting a woman. He was denied an attorney at his hearing and says the charges were brought in retaliation for his reporting on the cotton harvest.

Uzbekistan is one of the lowest-ranked countries in terms of media freedom, coming in at the sixth most censored country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Independent media, including RFE/RL, are barred from operating officially in the country, websites critical of the government are blocked, and arbitrary arrests of journalists is common.

With no official correspondents authorized to work in the country, Radio Ozodlik relies on a group of unofficial stringers, as well as their audience, some of whom send messages on their smartphone messaging service like the students in the cotton fields.

Sidikov explains that internet and 3G connections in Uzbekistan are unreliable and that taking photos and videos in the cotton fields is dangerous if his contacts are caught, but they can send information by text message relatively securely. Ozodlik then follows up with authorities and other witnesses.

A cotton picker sent RFE/RL this satirical photo of Uzbek money strewn in a cotton field.
A cotton picker sent RFE/RL this satirical photo of Uzbek money strewn in a cotton field.
In addition to a dedicated page on the Ozodlik website and constant updates and reports from the cotton fields, the coverage of this year’s harvest also included a Skype session call-in show during which listeners could freely speak their mind about the harvest and the impact of forced labor on their lives. Some callers told of injuries their family members had sustained and expressed frustration at the impossibility of seeking recourse with the authorities.

“For 20 years it has been said that cotton is Uzbekistan’s ‘white gold,’ but our reporting shows no evidence of people getting richer, we don’t see farming becoming more mechanized, we don’t see improved irrigation systems,” said Sidikov. “The conditions are even worse than they used to be. The cotton harvest is like mud that you can’t get out of no matter what you do.”

--By Emily Thompson