Tajikistan: Fields of Nightmares
David Holzmeyer is an American living in Khujand, Tajikistan. He teaches English at Khujand State University.
Tajikistan is definitely a beautiful country, but its cotton picking policies leave an indelible black mark on its reputation. Cotton picking in this country is a dirty practice that enslaves students and restricts the growth of this majestic country. Due to the greed of a few rich cotton brokers, working for the local and national government, students are essentially forced to pick cotton for about two months every year. Students are basically given three difficult options to choose from:
1. Pick cotton every day and live in squalor for two months.
2. Refuse to pick cotton and risk expulsion from school.
3. Pay a bribe to a university official or a medical doctor who will excuse them or write a “sick” note.
A friend of mine was recently denied this third option because they needed more students in the cotton fields. She explained to me that the dean of her school already had enough bribe money, and that the dean was essentially forcing her to go pick cotton or face serious repercussions.
Students have been going to pick cotton since the days of the USSR. However, back in the USSR days students were provided with better living conditions, healthier food, and cleaner water. Now students have to live in unheated, dilapidated, vermin infested sleeping quarters. Students are forced to sleep elbow to elbow on the floor or on a raised platform area. They are forced awake in the pre-dawn hours and work 8-9 hours a day 7 days a week. They labor all day on nothing more than tea and bread for breakfast and soup and tea for lunch and dinner.
The food and water quality are so bad that many parents bring healthy food and water to their beloved children. Students don’t have any access to a shower for weeks at a time despite the hot and humid conditions they endure in September and early October. Then in late October and early November it is so cold students have to sleep with their clothes and coats on and use warm blankets just to stay warm at night. The toilets are simple open pit outhouses without proper hand washing facilities.
For some students the conditions are more than they can bear and they become sick.
A few weeks ago I visited one of these forced labor camps. I found students lying on their mats in the afternoon in a state of sickness induced deep sleep. Another girl complained that her liver hurt her and she looked dehydrated and malnourished. She said she had notified a teacher that her liver hurt and that she wanted to see a doctor. However, no doctor was ever provided to her or the other sick students. The sick students needed clean water, clean clothes, clean bedding and medical services but none of these were available to them. The girl with the hurt liver was yelled at by an especially mean male teacher and forced to walk out to the field in the hot sun.
These practices are against several universal human rights. In article 23 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights it states, “Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to the protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.” Students’ work in the cotton fields is not of their own choosing. Every student I talked to in the cotton field said that if they had the choice they would rather be in school studying. I’ve already described that students’ working conditions are neither “just” nor “favorable.” Their pay is not even close to fair compensation for the amount of work they do. Often students only payment for their work is the scant unhealthy food rations they receive. To receive these rations students have to pick at least 15 kilos of cotton a day. If students pick more than 15 kilos their extra labor is not justly compensated by extra food or money. This is blatant exploitation and underpayment of students’ labor. It is also illegal by international law and standards.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights also deals with education in article 26. It states, “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” Many students here though are denied this basic human right for two months every year. The progress of this country is in serious jeopardy because young people are denied a quality higher education. In today’s world it is very important for people to be well educated so that they can understand the complex world we live in. However, local and national leaders have chosen to sacrifice this country’s future for the short term profits from the cotton harvest. Leaders know that if they can keep the people of Tajikistan undereducated they will be easier to control.
Of course school and government officials try to make these human rights abuses sound better by saying the students are just volunteers. But according to my American Heritage Dictionary a volunteer is, “a person who performs or offers a service of his or her own free will.” These students are definitely not volunteers. They are called volunteers because students are tricked and coerced into signing a blank sheet of paper. University officials tell students they have to sign this blank sheet of paper, and that it obligates them to volunteer their time to help the university. This “volunteer” service might entail students working to clean or repair the university for a few hours. But this signed blank sheet of paper is also used to force students to pick cotton. This blank sheet of paper is disingenuous and its primary aim is to give a legal basis for the forced cotton picking labor. School and university officials, for legal reasons, probably wouldn’t admit to expelling a student because they refused to pick cotton. Instead what they can do is mark a student absent from class for approximately 36 hours even though there weren’t any classes because the other students were picking cotton. This then gives them the authority to expel a student based on the student’s poor attendance. Most students are afraid of the negative repercussions they will face both at school and at home if they don’t go to the cotton fields. The students are the innocent victims in this awful situation. They are led astray by the adults and leaders of this country who either remain silent or actively participate in this illegal practice.
The 1998 Nobel Prize winner in economics Amartya Sen says in his book Development as Freedom that freedom leads to development. This means the more freedom a country has the more developed it will be. He says, “These substantive freedoms (that is liberty of political participation or the opportunity to receive basic education or health care) are among the constituent components of development.” He goes on to explain that, “freedoms of different kinds can strengthen one another.” Political freedoms, from free speech to elections, can help foster a better economy. In turn economic freedoms can help create more social freedoms. However, the opposite can also be true. If people’s freedoms are taken away this affects their other freedoms. Here in Tajikistan students feel like they don’t have the freedom to refuse to pick cotton. This then limits their educational and economic freedoms. They don’t get a quality and complete education and this leads to them not being able to get a job that will give them economic independence. Society here is less free and less developed because cotton picking continually denies the young generations the freedom of a quality education.
In contrast, Japan is a good example of a country that early on invested in educational development. The Meiji era (1868-1911) greatly expanded education for the Japanese people. But this occurred before generational poverty was broken in Japan. Now today Japan is a rich well developed country because it has been investing in its peoples’ education for many years. Expanding and improving education is not only the work of rich countries. It is necessary for all countries to do in if they are to develop.
Fortunately, this illegal activity that is a deterrent to development is starting to get some international press. In October 2008 an article appeared in the International Herald Times which is the global edition of the New York Times. It was entitled, “Tajik Farmers Enslaved Where Cotton is King” you can read this article by going to www.iht.com/articles/2008/10/15/asia/tajik.php. This article did a very good job of detailing the dismal plight of the cotton farmers. I sympathize with these farmers, but I’m also deeply effected by the students’ stories. Student cotton picking is an injustice and injustice anywhere leads to injustice everywhere.
* All the ideas and information contained within this article are my own and do not represent or reflect the ideas and opinions of the United States Government or its people.
** All my information for this article came from students’ first hand accounts and my own research.