An annual New England newspaper feature has long been an article about high school students in places like Presque Isle, Maine, who take a few days out of school each fall to take part in the potato harvest. It’s always a cue to us city slickers to thank our lucky stars that we didn’t live in Aroostook County, and/or to wax a bit nostalgic about a close to nature life that most of us never lived.
Let’s face it, the closest most of us get to agricultural labor is an occasional desultory pick of a few apples or strawberries, which always seems like a good idea at the outset, but which quickly moves into a combo of boredom, annoyance, and shock that it takes so long to fill a half-bushel with Macintoshes.
But it’s a different story if you live in Uzbekistan, where:
Throughout the fall, when the cotton harvest comes in, the government drafts about a million people, primarily public-sector employees and professionals, to work as cotton pickers, helping bring in the harvest for the world’s fifth-largest cotton exporting nation. (Source: NY Times.)
So each year, Dr. Tamara Khidovatova trades in her stethoscope for a burlap bag when:
…for a few weeks every autumn, she is forced to pick cotton, for which she is paid little or nothing.
There she’s joined by a million other draftees, “primarily public-sector employees and professionals.”
“You come to work, with all the makeup, wearing nice clothes, good shoes,” Dr. Khidoyatova, 61, said. “And the polyclinic director runs in and says, ‘I need 40 people in the field, the bus is outside, hurry, hurry!’ ”
Mostly people get more notice that they’re being dragooned into working the fields, where they’re forced to fill a quota of 120 pounds per day. And where, at night, they get to rest their heads on cots in school gyms.
Uzbekistan used to have school kids as young as 7 doing their cotton picking, but some advocacy groups jumped into the fray and began boycotting Western clothing companies that were making shirts and jeans with cotton picked by second-graders. Which led Uzbekistan to pull the second-graders out of the fields, and put the second-grade teachers in.
I suppose the cotton-picking Uzbeki professionals can at least be thankful that they’re not in the stir:
Human Rights Watch estimates that the country holds more political prisoners than the rest of the former Soviet Union combined.
Although if you don’t “volunteer”, you can be arrested (or fired).
The government maintains that all these professionals are volunteers. Which reminds me of the old Soviet Union joke:
Pavel to Ivan: “How are things going?”
Ivan to Pavel: “Can’t complain.”
The good news on the boycott front:
…the international apparel industry, having tolerated forced labor of younger children in Uzbekistan’s fields and already stung from negative publicity for relying on Asian sweatshop labor, has extended its boycott here to include forced labor of any sort. So far, 136 companies, including Disney, Fruit of the Loom, Gap, H & M, Levi’s and Walmart, have pledged to avoid knowingly buying Uzbek cotton as long as the practice continues.
But this harvest season, the boycott hadn’t quite clicked in, and more than a million folks were out there picking away.
The good news, according to one elementary school teacher:
“Nobody beats you with a whip.”
I guess it’s good news that there’s no Simon Legree out there with a horse whip, and that, after their stint in the fields, the pickers do get to return to their real lives.
Anyway, while the harvest is going on, you’re impacted whether it’s your turn in the fields or not. Employees are put in two groups. If you’re not cotton picking, you’re working double shifts. Or, in the case of teachers, doubling up your classroom.
Meanwhile, your boss as work is also your field boss.
And then there’s this:
Cotton-picking skills become a component of annual job evaluations, skewing decisions on promotions, said Dmitri Tikhonov, a rights activist and an authority on Uzbekistan’s cotton-picking policies.
Cotton picking aggravates office politics when, for example, a promotion goes to an otherwise inept doctor or teacher who is a stalwart in the fields.
There is a way out. Just like in the Civil War, you can hire someone to take your place, or get a family member to sub for you. But when you do outsource your cotton picking, you no doubt have to keep in mind that the government loves, loves, loves their cotton picking ways.
The Uzbek government characterizes the widespread participation in the harvest as upholding tradition or patriotic service, akin to volunteering for the National Guard or a neighborhood cleanup. Pickers are paid about 3 cents a pound, a pittance even here. Sometimes, the cost of a bus ticket and food exceeds this payment, meaning laborers work for nothing or even end up owing the state.
In a speech in October, Mr. [Islam] Karimov [Uzbekistan’s president] praised the citizenry, saying: “Since olden days cotton has been seen as a symbol of whiteness, of spiritual purity. And only people of pure mind and beautiful soul are capable of farming it.”
I guess we can all add Uzbekistan to the list of places we'd rather no live. I suppose it beats North Korea, but not by a lot.
A tip of my wide-brimmed straw field hat to my brother-in-law Rick for passing this article on to me.