Today, Uzbek farmers have a good deal of work to do. The fields have been sown with cotton and, God willing, it is growing well. This year, cases where farmers had to replant new cotton plants were rare. Almost everyone managed to germinate seeds from the first sowing. This was facilitated by rain at the end of April and in May. The plants have grown now. But the problem is that together with them also grew a lot of weeds. They grow much faster than cotton plants. And if you do not clear the field of weeds in a timely manner, then: goodbye, harvest. So now, Uzbekistan is engaged in a struggle to preserve the future of the cotton crop by weeding it.
How is this work being organized?
Every employee from the regional administrations is now mobilized to work in a particular section of a cotton field for which he now bears responsibility. These people are called authorized hokims (head of administration). There are commissioners on the national as well as the district level. In short, managers, usually not in any way working in agriculture, are now responsible for timely weeding the cotton fields entrusted to him.
In fact, all the stages of cultivation and harvesting of cotton are very important, and require particular attention. Therefore, with regards to campaigns for the main plant in Uzbekistan, “the country’s leadership is merciless towards anyone that gets in the way of the cotton production”, as Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev loves to say during conference meetings.
And merciless they were – even towards the prosecutors and the police. They were chased and expelled from work, if it became known that they had not conscientiously fulfilled their compulsory duties in the cotton production.
Each prosecutor of any level is responsible for a certain part of a cotton field in an assigned area. And the Prosecutor General’s Office has the habit of periodically carrying out checks in a particular area or region. And if problems are detected in the area which the regional prosecutor is responsible for, he may have to pay a penalty. And it’s a disaster for officials, especially the elderly: their entire professional experience will be ruined, and they will be left without pensions and benefits. Not wanting to be in this position, all commissioners do their utmost to make sure that everything was at its best on their cotton fields.
Educators – an important resource
In Uzbekistan, it is not considered to be objectionable to have education and health workers do agricultural work. This is a very profitable and, as a rule, submissive labor force, ready to fulfill any requirements emanating from the authorities.
How does this happen? An example.
The hokim of one of the areas called the director of the local college and assigned his department the care of an amount of cotton acreage of a local farmer. The director went to this farmer, talked to him, found that he had 30 hectares of allocated cotton fields that he was not able to weed on his own. He urgently needed help, that is more people to do the work. But only teachers and technical staff were available. Mobilizing students is prohibited. Another option was to give money to the farmer, so he could hire other workers to help with the weeding. Today, throughout the country, teams of volunteering women were set up that go to the farmers and agree to support them for a fee.
The wages differ: one day of work costs 13 to 15 thousand soums for each employee (the official dollar exchange rate is 2,919 soums, the rate on the black market is 6,100 soums). Foremen get one thousand soums on top for each person brought to them. Transportation costs also have to be covered by the farmer. The most commonly used minibus “RAF”, a Soviet model, is designed to transport eleven people. These cars were removed from the city routes and are now used in villages to take 18-20 people at a time to the farmers. One day of transport, depending on the distance between the cotton field and the farmer’s place, will cost between 30 and 50 thousand soums.
Wages for workers can also be calculated by hectares: If the cotton field is overgrown with weeds, the weeding costs can amount to 150 thousand soums, but the average is 40-70 thousand soums per hectare. Some people make a deal directly with the farmers and work for wages that have been calculated in such way.
It often happens that the farmers invite people to work but have nothing to pay them with. On the first day, they promise to pay tomorrow, on the second they might say that they had to go to a meeting at the prosecutor’s office, on the third day they again think of something to postpone the day of reckoning. And on the fourth day, their foremen and workers go after them to receive the money they worked for.
But among the farmers you can also find some real businessmen, that make up about 10 to 30 percent. They have all the work laid out, have their own people with whom they have reached an agreement at the beginning of the year, and are responsible for specific acres, processing them, as they say as “turnkeys”: they weed, clean the fields and so on. In return they receive the money agreed on, some wheat straw or other goods.
Farmers who entered agriculture by accident are especially susceptible to problems related to the weeding of the fields – between the two reforms of 2008 and 2015 – and have not yet been able to organize their work. These farmers now make up the majority in the Uzbek agriculture – about 70 percent.
Let’s go back to our college principal. After a visit to the state administration the farmer assembled his staff – 70 full-time employees (teachers and technical staff) – and told them that they were now assigned to a certain farmer. The hokim of the area specifically said: no money shall be taken from the farmer, but help is necessary. If the teachers themselves travel to the fields every day, the cultivation of 30 acres will at least last ten days. They have to organize their own transportation, and they also have to –cover the costs. If the employees need to pay 50 thousand soums for their daily transportation, they will have to pay 500 thousand soums for ten days. And still they need to pay for more: meals alone cost more than 500 thousand soums. On the field, some of the teachers may get sick, and the additional cost for medicine can amount to one hundred thousand to one million soums.
The college staff members were unhappy, thought it through and decided each to contribute 15 thousand soums from their own salaries, one million soums all together. The college director brought the money to the farmer who is now obliged to find other people to clear his fields of weeds.
The delighted director told the district hokim about it who sent him back home. Soon however, the director was summoned to the regional management department of colleges which told him he was now responsible for weeding a section of another farmer’s land. The college handled it the same way as before: 70 employees contributed 30 thousand soums of their own salaries and the director took the two million soums collected from the teachers to pay the second farmer so he could hire workers to weed the fields instead.
Is it not better to pay off?
Recently, one regional hokim summoned the chief of the regional management department of colleges and instructed him to clear 300 hectares of cotton fields of weeds in the same area where that college is located. The college is one of five of such colleges in the region. Three days ago, the chief of the regional department arrived to the area, gathered all the college directors from the district and informed them about the order. Next to him sat the regional prosecutor who is responsible for that area. He told about the great meaning of the order: that it was a critical situation and that the weeding of the field had to be carried out as quickly as possible because the cultivation of cotton was a strategic business. And those who dared to deny assistance would be perceived as instigators of unrest and the enemies of our sovereign state, threatened the prosecutor. He added that he was strictly forbidden to involve students: “They are our future, they have to learn.” He was ordered to have the cotton fields cleared within five days, by May 29th.
Our college director gathered his team on May 24 and said that it was necessary to hand over 70 thousand soums to pay off the farmer and get out of the work. The amount is greater than before because after the persistent rains the weeds grew very well and became strong, and if a few more days were missed, also the cotton could be forgotten, weeding would become impossible.
Teachers and technicians first rebelled, some shouted. But then, many signed the statements confirming the payment of 70 thousand soums of their own wages.
If the director tries, then he might be able to convince the district financial department to award some funds to be used as prizes, for example, for instructors achieving “excellent performance” standards, but in reality he would use the money for the college to pay the farmers to buy out of weeding duties.
The author is a farmer in the Syrdarya region of Uzbekistan. The name has not been disclosed. Original in Russian published online: http://www.fergananews.com/articles/8982
For more information about the 2016 weeding season, see UGF’s Chronicle of Forced Labor of May 2016: http://uzbekgermanforum.org/chronicle-of-forced-labour-in-uzbekistan/