Patriotic Service or Forced Labor
The cotton harvest in Uzbekistan
The Uzbekistan government calls it a patriotic service, comparing it to volunteering for the National Guard, but it is more like forced labor. Every fall, when the cotton harvest comes in, the government drafts about a million doctors, teachers, engineers and bureaucrats, to take to the fields to gather some 120 pounds of raw cotton daily. Those who don’t comply to the draft will face arrest, fines and even be fired from their jobs. Making matters worse, the citizen's adeptness at picking cotton is part of their yearly employment reviews, leading to the promotions of the best pickers and not necessarily the best at their given profession.
Because of the absent employees, every cotton harvest also brings disfunction to the economy. Hospitals are only open for emergencies, teachers have to double their class sizes to make up for lost teachers and the social welfare system breaks down.
In June, the State Department ranked Uzbekistan in the lowest category for tolerating human trafficking and forced labor. Pickers are paid about 3 cents per pound, which sometimes is not enough to pay the cost of their bus ticket and food, meaning laborers work for nothing or end up owing the state.
Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov claims that one can only farm the cotton if they are pure in mind and beautiful in soul. He says that it is seen as a symbol of whiteness and of spiritual purity. Because of this he still believes that citizens are volunteering for the farm labor.
In previous years adults have not had to work as many weeks in the picking season, but because of the efforts of NGO’s to rid the fields of children, citizens of age have had to pick up the extra hours. While it is a win to eliminate child labor, as a consequence, grown-up are being forced to fill the gap.
The only way to stop the forced labor is to join the 136 companies like Disney and H&M in boycotting the use of cotton from Uzbekistan.