This article was originally posted by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, here.
The following are excerpts of interviews conducted by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) with employees of a nursery school in the city of Nukus, Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, on November 7, 2015. Nodira is 35 years old, and Gulamdon is in retirement age. Their names were changed for security reasons.
UGF: Have you and your colleagues been sent to work in the fields during the 2015 cotton harvest?
There are 55 employees working in our nursery school. Nine of them are on maternal leave. We went to harvest cotton both for a daily shift and with overnight stays.
On September 9, approximately 30% of the nursery school employees went to the Tahtapul region of Karakalpakstan. The last group returned on October 29. The first group went there for 20 days. Others were going on daily shifts.
Those who stayed there [in the fields] overnight returned home to have a one-day rest. Thereafter, they started going on daily shifts.
UGF: What about the quota for cotton picking, payment and any costs you incurred?
The set quota is 60 kg.
They were paying us for the collected cotton every five days. They were paying 230 UZS (0,05 USD) per one kilogram of cotton.
On the first days, the farmer was providing us with food. However, when the pickers started to get money for the collected cotton, we had to bring our own food. When there was not enough money for the food, we were buying the food from our own money.
A group leader managed all organizational issues at the field.
While we were harvesting cotton, our salary [for the work at the nursery school] was paid fully.
UGF: How were the working conditions?
We were working without weekends, staying at the fields from 8 in the morning until sunset.
We were living in a space provided by the farmer for the cotton pickers. The accommodation did not correspond elementary sanitary norms. It was also not heated.
They did not boil water* for those who went to harvest cotton for daily shifts, not to mention other conditions.
UGF: Do you consider cotton harvesting to be “voluntary” work?
We do not get any benefits from the cotton harvesting.
“I’ve sent my daughter instead of me this year. When she was leaving, I gave her food for five days. After returning from the overnight stay, she was going for me on daily shifts. She was taking food with her.” – said a nursery teacher in retirement age
“During the season of the cotton harvesting, the work in the nursery school becomes much more difficult for all of us: for the nurses, the nursery teachers and the technicians. We work 2 – 3 times more, but the salary remains the same.
Besides the cotton harvesting, they are bothering us with various clean-up events. Today, we have to participate in one of them because it is the 6th day of the week.
We cannot complain to anyone. They always harp on that we have to say that we do it [the cotton harvesting and clean-up events] voluntary.
Nobody asks us, if we want or do not want to participate. You will participate, no discussions!
Nobody paid replacement workers [to pick instead of them]. We were picking cotton ourselves. Those who could not go to pick cotton were sending someone from the family.
The City Board of Education signed a contract with the Tahtapul region for five years. We have gone to pick cotton there for four years. One more year left, then we will probably be going to pick cotton in another region.
* Karakalpakstan is considered as an ecologic catastrophe zone because of the drying Aral see. People there almost do not have access to clean drinking water.