Every September, hundreds of thousands of Uzbek children begin two months of forced labor in the country’s cotton fields. Receiving almost nothing in wages and acting in accordance with state mandate, schools are closed and children become virtual slaves as the harvest season rolls in.
In the fields, children as young as seven are forced to meet extreme quotas with little opportunities for rest. Conditions are described as squalid and food inadequate. They earn a few pennies per kilo of cotton and wage deductions are made for transportation and food costs. At the end of the harvest season they are left exhausted and often in poor health. Teachers are conscripted into becoming overseers and also work in the fields in order to meet production quotas. Children make up only about half of the harvest season labor force and farmers, forced to grow the export crop, have it little better. As one Uzbek farmer describes it, “being a cotton farmer here is like hanging between life and death. The government controls our lives very tightly. If we don’t obey, we’ll end up in trouble. All we want is freedom. And the state is punishing us for wanting freedom.”
Uzbekistan’s state-administered cotton industry has also taken its toll on the environment. With the heavy irrigation demands for the cash crop, the Aral Sea, once a climate modifying feature in the region, is at 15% of its former volume. As a result, salinity has multiplied, killing 24 species of native fish and wiping out Uzbekistan’s commercial fishing industry. The cotton fields themselves have been overirrigated and suffer from high levels of soil salinity and erosion. Cotton monoculture has left Uzbekistan’s formerly prosperous lands increasingly infertile, sometimes to the point of abandonment. The heavy use of pesticides has compounded the environmental problem, leading to increased rates of birth defects and genetic mutations.
Uzbekistan is the world’s second largest exporter of cotton, shipping 800,000 metric tons overseas. The comprador Uzbek state maintains a monopoly on the export of cotton. With a barely paid, seasonally captive workforce, much of the income from the cotton is not used in future development projects or as part of social welfare programs but instead props up a small parasitic elite which make up the Third World regime. The cotton which is not exported is sent to Uzbekistan’s small domestic textile industry, made up of joint ventures between the Uzbek state and foreign investors.
According to Steve Trent, Executive Director of the Environmental Justice Foundation, “We have witnessed the forced use of children in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields and seen the conditions they work in. At the same time we have seen how a small, corrupt, ruling elite denies these facts and continues to be the main beneficiary of the cash the child labor earns Uzbekistan.” While forced child labor is undoubtedly a regular feature in the country’s cotton industry, Trent and the Environmental Justice Foundation are missing the larger picture.
Most of Uzbeck’s cotton is exported. The Uzbek state actually sells the cotton at 85% of the global market price and 43% of it is sent to Asian textile mills. There young adults, often women, endure conditions which are scarcely better than that of the common Uzbek. Produced under similar conditions of comprador capitalism, the final product is then exported to imperialist countries where it enters consumer markets. While various Third World puppet regimes may reap some of the benefits of vast pools of virtually captive people, most of it is passed along.
After cotton is harvested and spun into textiles under brutal conditions of comprador capitalism, the finished goods finally enter First World consumer markets. There, First World business realizes massive profits from simply selling the products of Third World labor to First World consumers. Also, First World workers benefit: their high wages enable them to purchase vast quantities of goods, something that would not be possible without the super exploitation of Third World workers. In the grand scheme of things, the Uzbek state is a minor player. It is the imperialist First World which is the main culprit: through its exploitative workings of global scale, it demands cheap commodities produced under conditions of virtual slavery.
Those who benefit from Uzbek forced child labor, the Uzbek comprador elite and the First World, are a global minority. In contrast, the Uzbek masses are part of a larger majority, the vast Third World masses. According the the Environmental Justice Foundation, 250 million children around the world are compelled to work, presumably in commodity exchange industries. Adding to this are the world’s exploited adults, those languishing in vast urban slums and subsistence communities under constant threat of being kicked off the land. Together, the vast Third World masses pose a serious threat to the system: they carry great potential and a historical responsibility.
Today, the most long term solution to the problem of forced child labor is an end to the system which demands it, capitalist-imperialism. Organized along their combined interest, those currently at the bottom of the global order are key to destroying it and building anew. By organizing those who have nothing to lose, Uzbek children and farmers, Chinese factory workers and the vast Third World masses, around a radical program of class war and liberation, and by supporting each others’ struggles against the imperialist system, peoples everywhere can find freedom.
The struggle to build a new world can only take place alongside advances of the oppressed over the course of class warfare. Only through a revolutionary movement of the Third World masses will children everywhere have a future of peace, freedom, prosperity and equality.