Posted by: Borderless Borderguard | November 27, 2007

I used to pick cotton…, moreover, I enjoyed it…

I just have read two interesting articles about cotton harvest in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. While reading the article about Tajikistan, it was clear to me that it works exactly the same way like in Uzbekistan with cotton business.

Briefly about the articles, they are in Russian readable here. To raise the effectiveness of the harvest the Tajik government promised a tourist trip abroad for the best harvester. The results of the harvest were unbelievably high 10-12 tones of cotton per student. Well done you think? It is not that simple. What happens is: the student buys 150 kg of cotton daily. Where does s/he buy it from? Cotton grows somewhere close to people, because people grow them. The article calls them villagers. They are experienced in picking cotton, fast and clean. I have seen it. The villagers have tones of picked cotton, which if they sell to the government they don’t have any profit from. The government underpays, it is a routine. The only source of income for the villagers is a student, who pays twice or three times more than the government for the same kilogramme of cotton.

The article about Uzbekistan cotton business informs about child labour, teachers and parents speak their opinion about cotton campaign and child labour. 30 to 40 kg of cotton is a must-to-be-picked-a-day amount, 40 to 50 UZB soums per kilo is the price, which means 2000 UZB soums (slightly more than a dollar a day). One of the schools picked 42.000 kg of cotton this year. Teachers are obliged to force children to go the field. I’ll write later about child labour. Now about students:


What do you need before you go picking cotton? How does it proceed?

The first months of the academic year, you have almost no classes, it is very relaxed. It is the whole September that you only wait for cotton harvest to be declared. Usually it is mid September or the beginning of October that students in Samarkand receive the long awaited news about cotton. Some start running around hospitals buying diagnosis from their doctors. Doctors make a lot of money, by the way, setting false diagnosis, so that some rich students can be released of work in the field. Others run around shops buying warm clothes and food, a lot of food; it is like preparing for a picnic which lasts about two months. It costs a lot of money for a student.

Conditions in which students live are close to terrible. By the way the nearby schools are shut during the harvest, so that the building could be used to host university students from the city. Students live, packed, in sport halls of schools. Sixteen people in one room, or even more. You bring your bed and sheets with you. Sometimes there is no glass in the window, and it can be freezing cold outside. If you have good organizers they take care of it, if not you do it yourself. Girls in one room, boys in the other. No hot water. Well, there is no hot water even in the city sometimes, so it is not worth noting. No shower. If one wants to take a shower, one has to go into the village and pay villagers some modest prise for having a shower once in a while.

Food, as I said, you buy and take a lot of food with you. The state provides students with some food as well, like: tea, bread, salt, sugar, potatoes, carrots, onion and maybe something else that I have forgotten. I can’t remember if we received some meat. Officially we did, we also were supposed to receive butter and eggs, but these products never reached our kitchen. By the way, students cook for themselves. They choose the cooking team (about ten students) among the students and they cook for their co-students.

By the way, the state provides food not for free. One has to pay for it through picking a minimum of 25 or 50 kg of cotton a day.

Besides the food provided by the state, parents visit their children weekly, and bring food, usually in huge amounts for the whole army of students. This is a good tradition, a large cauldron of plov, for example, makes many students feel happy about cotton life.

Another source of nutrition widely used by the students is villagers. The villagers, thanks to students, have one more source of income. They sell their milk, and other diary products, bread, fruits and vegetables to hungry students.

Good side: you get to know co-students better. Some fall in love, some fight, some make friends. Quite a romantic atmosphere! It’s a proper adventure. Students of the first year, usually all go to cotton fields, so that they come to know each other. It is a nice start.

Bad side: bad conditions, many students get ill, simply flue or cold, but some get seriously ill.

Students aren’t an effective workforce for picking cotton, because they simply can’t pick it well, or can’t be bothered. They buy cotton from the villagers, who are way better in picking techniques.

There are many cheating methods: like doubling the amount you picked through just measuring your yield twice (e.g. I picked 7 kg of cotton, but I go around twice and let my same bag be measured twice, so I have 14 kg written for me), but then you have only virtual numbers. Some students add stones into the mass, so that the cotton will be heavier, and many tricks which one can’t avoid working with students, who have absolutely no motivation to pick cotton.

Because many students can’t pick or buy 25-50 kg of cotton daily they have debts when they come back home. This is one of the most frustrating parts of the whole story. Moreover, by the time you come back you do not receive your stipend (in Uzbekistan students receive monthly stipend, the amount varies according to grades, in 2004 it was 14.000 for excellent, 11.000 for good, and 9000 for fair) for couple of months. The answer to your frustration is: you are in debt.

Who benefits from students picking cotton?

Doctors: sell certificates with diagnoses to release students from obligatory cotton harvest. The thing is that cotton harvest is officially non-obligatory, it is voluntary, but the only excuse university officials accept is certificate saying you are seriously ill.

Deans and other university officials: this is secret to me at what point they make money; definitely there are students which can bribe or coordinate their deeds with the deans in the universities. I think they are also involved in food-stories as well, meaning that meat, butter and the amount of food never reaches the stomachs of the students. But these are just my speculations. Officially food is delivered to students, but I have worked in the student kitchen at schools during cotton harvest, the food is delivered but only partially.

Villagers: I think this is the most positive aspect in the whole story; students are almost the only income for the villagers. They sell their cotton for a good price; they sell their diary products and other services (like shower). Many villagers see no cash at all, if not the students.

Students: make good friends, have wild discos, some lazy ones would say, no classes, no assignments;

It seems like the whole economy (Uzbekistan’s main export is cotton) is based on students. But how do students finance themselves? Are they so rich?

It is their parents, citizens, who pay for everything starting with the fake diagnosis and finishing with food, only in rare cases do students work and earn money.

PS: People who served in cotton fields during the Soviet time remember that it was quite a profitable occupation for students. They could really earn money on their labour. But nowadays, students come back with empty pockets and debts only.



  1. […] reviews two articles on the topic of still existing practice of compulsory cotton-picking in Uzbekistan, in […]

  2. Here‘s another article (plus video) on this subject.

  3. A very illustrative description of the cotton-picking process. I can add that cotton experience differs for guys and girls. For girls its normally a little adventure with a romantic tint and gaining weight because of carb-rich foods. For guys though it’s pretty different because of the traditional “hazing” procedure that all freshmen have to go through. The hazing involves senior student’s night trips to buildings where freshmen sleep and whooping the hell out of them for the first 2-3 nights of the cotton season. Once the University administration takes “control” over the situation by threating both freshmen and seniors, the hazing is officially over. Although normally the hazing fights are limited to cotton venue only, I’ve seen cases when guys had pretty huge fights upon returning to Samarqand. Additionally, guys associate cotton season with abusive drinking. Drinking is such inseparable part of the cotton culture for guys that it starts on the bus TO cotton field. Well giving the nature of college life it would sound too bad if the quality of liquor was adequate there. Instead, after the first several days of “blast”, guys run out of their liquor reserves and are obliged to buy it off site. I can tell you from personal experience alcohol in villages sucks big time! When I was drinking it I wasn’t sure if I was having ethyl or methyl spirit… Well, I obviously survived but upon returning home I abhorred alcohol for good three months…

  4. […] —Nafisa […]

  5. […] —Nafisa […]

  6. […] embargo coverage at Registan, I used to pick cotton – and enjoyed it by Nafisa [great, original eyewitness account, needs editing], Also: The season may have passed, […]

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