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The men and women in Invisible Hands (edited by Corinne Goria with a forward by Kalpona Akter) reveal the human rights abuses occurring behind the scenes of the global economy. These narrators—including phone manufacturers in China, copper miners in Zambia, garment workers in Bangladesh, and farmers around the world—reveal the secret history of the things we buy, including lives and communities devastated by low wages, environmental degradation, and political repression. Sweeping in scope and rich in detail, these stories capture the interconnectivity of all people struggling to support themselves and their families.

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AGE: 37
OCCUPATION: Seamstress

Uzbekistan is a landlocked country of nearly thirty million in Central Asia and was formerly part of the Soviet Union. Today, the country is one of the world’s largest cotton exporters along with the United States, China, India, Australia, and Brazil.

Every year, up to one million Uzbek adults and children are coerced into participating in cotton harvests. Cotton fields are only partially privatized, with landowners required to meet specific production quotas set by the national govern- ment and also required to sell at a set price. In rural regions, schoolchildren as young as seven (though most are high school age) are required to pick as much as one hundred pounds of raw cotton each day, seven days a week, from September through November. Public employees such as teachers, hospital workers, and police are required to help supervise the harvests, and private employers are expected to provide financial support or employee labor as well.

Children who are unwilling to participate or who fall short of quotas face expulsion from school, and their parents face reprisals such as having welfare benefits cut off. Adults who fail to participate can lose pensions or other benefits, depending on their work.

Although children are forced to work through the harvest season, they are paid a small wage—just enough to supplement the meager food rations they are given. The actual amount of pay is difficult to determine but at peak season may hover around US $2.50 a day, depending on the quantity of cotton the children are able to pick. Nordibek, a seven-year-old we speak with, tells us that with the wages he was given working six-hour days, he was able to save enough to attend a carnival with his father once after the harvesting season was over.

In December 2010, we are able to talk briefly with a few men, women, and children about their experiences with the annual harvest. The Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights helps set up the interviews and translate. One volunteer, Nasiba Opa, describes for us the forced labor imposed on her family each year during the cotton-harvesting season. In the short time we have with her, she’s able to eloquently detail the annual disruption of her family’s life that the harvest represents. Nasiba’s name and town and the names of her children’s schools have been changed or withheld to protect her identity.

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I live in a small town in a rural district of Uzbekistan. My husband teaches physical education in elementary school. I have a son and a daughter. My son, Amirkul, is nine years old. He is in second grade. My daughter’s name is Ziola. She’s in high school, and she’s fifteen.

During the cotton season, it often seems the whole of Uzbekistan goes to the field—even soldiers, doctors, and other farmers who don’t grow cotton are sent to the cotton fields. Everyone is encouraged to go, whether you’re a child or a grown-up—everyone except those who can pay a bribe. This season, my husband went to the cotton field with the other teachers to oversee the work of the students from his school. My daughter Ziola also went separately to the fields with her high school. She left September 15. In her school, it was eighth through ninth grades that went to the fields this year. College students went as well. My son and I didn’t go this year—he’s still a little too young and I’m home taking care of him. But at the end of September, some elementary school students went, too. When the weather turned cold and there was no more cotton in the fields, they came back, in late November.
While working the harvest, the students stayed in their school, which was right by the fields, as if it were a hotel. Those who had folding beds brought them from home. The rest slept on the floor of the school, and there was no way to wash your face or to take a shower.

My husband and I would walk a couple of miles to visit Ziola. It’s about a thirty-minute walk. When I was visiting the fields, I asked Ziola about food and water, and she complained about the food. The students ate thin soup with a few noodles. The teachers and the school director ate separately—they had better food. Ziola said that the students would leave for the fields after breakfast, around seven a.m., and would come back around five thirty p.m. There were no days off. They were working on Sundays and holidays as well.

In order to pick quality cotton for sale, machines are not used. Mostly, cotton is picked by hand. We used to use machines to pick a lot of cotton quickly. Back when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union, we were told that with technological progress the machines would replace physical labor. Now we have gone back to picking by hand, like during feudalism, because machines can damage the fibers of the cotton.

In the field, the students are under the teachers’ and school director’s supervision. Also, government officials, policemen, and inspectors go to the field to watch. Most everyone was in the fields, but my daughter told me that some students were exempt from picking cotton. There are thirty students in her class. Six students didn’t go. Two were sick. Three obtained letters from a doctor excusing them because of other health conditions. And one more student, whose father is a director of an oil site, didn’t go. It was said that the director bribed someone. But after we finished with the cotton and school started again, those students who didn’t go were not allowed to take classes unless they paid 100,000 som.1

There was no contract with us or with our daughter. No one ever asked our permission to take her. If we were to decide, do you think we would agree to send her? She is the only daughter we have. But we can’t do anything about it. If we don’t send our daughter to the fields, the school cannot punish her officially, but we’ve heard that those who didn’t go to the fields were expelled from school.

The school districts can fire school directors if their schools don’t meet harvesting requirements. Uzbeks have a saying: “The government official who is threatened from above in turn threatens the school director below. The director threatens the teachers, and the teachers threaten the students.” And what should the students do? Everything is taken out on the children. Teachers threaten students and sometimes beat them, saying, “If you don’t cooperate, you’ll be kicked out of school.”

And what kind of education are the children getting at school? Children say that there is a computer in the school. But one or two computers, what is that for thousands of kids? In my opinion, if there is no computer at home, kids cannot learn to use the computer. And though they have a computer at school, kids are not allowed to use the Internet. Every day there are lectures about “spirituality” and how harmful the Internet is.2 But the main problem in the schools, like where my kids are, is kids missing classes. If children are not going, it’s because there is nothing to do at school once they’re there. And then students spend two, two and a half months in the field, so almost one quarter of the school year is gone. When the students return, the teachers skip certain topics or cover everything briefly. If the state leaves schools without classes for almost three months—sending children to pick cotton, to weed, to dig—what kind of future will we have in Uzbekistan?

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Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan adopted a constitution and began holding national and local elections at the end of that year. Islam Karimov, the former Soviet governor of Uzbekistan, was elected the country’s first president in 1991 and has held power ever since. Though Uzbekistan is nominally a democracy, there are no real opposition parties to challenge Karimov’s twenty-three year rule.

Human rights organizations consider Uzbekistan an authoritarian state, and numerous human rights abuses have been documented in Uzbekistan since the country gained independence. Aside from forced labor, watchdog groups have decried Uzbekistan’s unfair elections, suppression of free speech and opposition politics, and extralegal detention of citizenry.

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Voice of Witness is a non-profit organization that uses oral history to illuminate contemporary human rights crises in the U.S. and around the world. Founded by author Dave Eggers and physician/human rights scholar Lola Vollen, Voice of Witness publishes a book series that depicts human rights injustices through the stories of the men and women who experience them. The Voice of Witness Education Program brings these stories, and the issues they reflect, into high schools and impacted communities through oral history-based curricula and holistic educator support.

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1 100,000 som = US $45. The per capita annual income in Uzbekistan is less than US $700.

2 Uzbekistan is approximately 90% Muslim, and the Uzbek government maintains strict control over Internet access.