“A Day in the Life” – Through the Eyes of a Child: Cotton Slavery in Uzbekistan
EDITORS NOTE: The characters in this story are fictional, but similar heartbreaking stories unfold countless times in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan.
This morning Malika wakes up early. It is a cool morning in September and the sun is not yet over the horizon. If she kneels on her bed she can see out of her small window to where the cotton seeds were planted this April. The plants have been sprayed and now the soft balls of cotton sit atop bare stems, waiting to be harvested.
Malika is finally nine years old and for the first time she will get to participate in the Pahta. Other years she had watched with longing as the older kids were excused from school to go work in the fields, while she had had to remain behind. The children would leave early in the morning to join their parents and friends. Most of the teachers went too, leaving Malika and the other children to pass long boring days waiting for the harvest to end. The entire city was shut down so that everyone could participate.
For as long as she can remember, Malika has heard songs and stories about the Pahta. She is looking forward to finally being able to have the “opportunity to contribute to their nation’s prosperity” as she has so often been told. She repeats the words quietly to herself, as do all the other children; she knows the phrase by heart, although her comprehension of their meaning is still vague.
Malika’s mom Muattar has already been awake for hours. She gives Malika a thick slice of bread and starts packing a bag with cold mutton and noodles that can be eaten in the field. Muattar is moving briskly around the house preparing for the long day in the fields. She is not as happy as Malika today, she looks tired and drawn. Malika had heard her parent’s hushed conversations late into the night, her mother arguing that Malika must stay behind because of her arm. As she listened through the thin walls of the family’s house with baited breath, she silently rejoiced as she listened to her father’s sad voice explain that they simply did not have the money to bribe the officials who could allow Malika to wait another year.
Like many of the children in her village, Malika was born with a birth defect. For her it was a weak right arm that sometimes had spastic movements. She already loathed her arm and tried her best to conceal it so that the other kids couldn’t tease her. She was horrified at the thought that she might have to stay behind yet again because of it.
Muattar blamed Butifos – a defoliant she was forced to use in the cotton fields while she was pregnant – for Malika’s arm. There had been rumours for years that the chemical was harmful to unborn babies and it was legally banned two years before, but nothing seemed to have changed.
In fact, Muattar didn’t really know what chemicals were being used. When it was time to apply them, the women were given plastic water bottles with holes drilled in the caps, filled with a dark yellow liquid. The women would walk up and down the rows of cotton sprinkling the chemicals on the plants. It was long boring work and Muattar had not always been cautious as a young woman, often hurrying to finish the job so she could return to her everyday work. Her family was not rich, and they could scarcely afford the unpaid time required to tend the cotton.
Now, Muattar looks down at her hands and forearms, peppered with scarring from chemical burns, and wishes for the hundredth time today that she had been more cautious.
Malika was still ignorant of all the controversies surrounding the chemicals used in the fields. She didn’t listen to the older women whispering in the corners and was not interested in anything that would slow her down on a day as exciting as today.
Muattar startles at the knock on the door before taking Malika by the hand. They, along with her 2 older brothers and her father, join her grandparents at the front of the house and then blend in with the parade of people heading out of town. It is a cool morning with dew on the ground – a rarity in this arid climate. Malika shivers, but she likes the way her footprints glisten in the dim dawn light. As soon as the sun comes up over the horizon, the dew will burn off and the fields will become dusty and hot.
Malika is impatient and she finds it hard to walk at her grandmother’s pace. Just for today she finds herself resentful that the older woman moves so slow.
When they arrive at the fields, Malika is filled with excitement. Some of the older boys are running around handing out sacks while others have already started on the rows. Malika and her family pick a far corner of the field and Muattar starts showing her what to do. It was not nearly as easy as it had looked from a distance.
The cotton grew inside a round ball about the size of Malika’s small fist. Now the balls had opened to expose their white fluffy cotton. To pick the cotton, she has to reach past the sharp tips of the cotton burr, often pricking her fingers in the process. She knew from watching her parents and older brothers that her fingers would stay sore for the entire month of the Pahta, but she was surprised how hard it was to keep working when her hands stung so badly. Regardless, she remained brave and refused to whine to her mother.
It was now getting closer to 9:00 AM, the sun was up, and the dew had dried. The temperatures were climbing and Malika had taken off her sweater, trying to keep it from getting caught in the brambles of the cotton plants. Her grandmother had started the day bent at the waist like all of the other pickers, but by now was crawling on all four through the rows as she picked. She badly wanted to help her grandmother, but Muattar told her to concentrate on her own row. Still, Malika’s bag was growing heavy and she was proud that she was able to pick all that cotton all by herself.
By 10:00 AM, Malika was dirty, tired, bored, and hungry. Picking cotton had long ago ceased to be exciting and her bag was now so heavy she had trouble dragging it behind her. Muattar gave her some water and mutton from the bag. Malika wanted nothing more than to plop down in the dirt and eat her lunch but Muattar insisted that she must keep going.
Finally, it was lunch time and the pickers dragged their heavy bags out to the street to be weighed. Malika’s brothers started stuffing handfuls of cotton into her and grandmother’s bags. She was feeling cross by this time and was angry that her brothers were making her bag heavier. Worse still, she could not get her mother’s attention. Muattar was intent on the line at the scale and seeing how much other pickers had accumulated.
All of a sudden there was a commotion at the front of the line. A boy Malika knew from school was crouched on the ground and a man was standing over him yelling and swearing. Suddenly the man reared back and kicked the boy across the stomach. Malika cried out and started running towards the front of the line, but many hands reached out to hold her back. Muattar turned her face into her apron and hid her eyes. Malika started sobbing. She could not understand what she had seen. Who was that man? Why had he hurt her friend? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything about it? Her mind was spinning and it felt like the ground was no longer stable under her feet. Muattar murmured over and over to her not to worry. Her bag would be heavy enough. Her brothers were strong and were taking care of her. Malika was far too distraught to understand what Muattar was saying, but she let herself be soothed, much as she had as a young child.
Malika’s family moved to the front of the line and had their bags weighed without incident. Muattar was relieved and happy when Grandmother’s bag was approved. By this time Malika did not even try to understand why. The family sat down and had what remained of their cold lunch, and all too soon got up to go back to the cotton rows.
The afternoon passed in a blur. The sun was high in the sky and burned down on Malika’s back. Some of the men were working without their shirts. How she envied the boys and wished she was allowed to do the same. Her fingers were bleeding and her muscles ached. Even though she was a strong girl who was used to running and playing, her body was not used to staying in this strange hunched position all day.
The pickers worked through the heat of the day and into the evening. Even through their exhaustion they moved quickly. Everyone, that is everyone but Malika, was aware that the final weigh in for the day was coming.
By 8:00 pm, it was getting too dark to pick anymore and the family dragged their heavy bags out to the road, again Malika’s brothers raced around adjusting the weights. Again, her family was waved through without incident.
Finally, the family turned towards home. Malika wondered how she would be able to make it up the small hill to the family’s home. She had never felt so drained, both physically and emotionally. She didn’t understand how today was like the songs she had sung about the great Pahta. All Malika knew is that she was tired and sore, and that the sun was going down and it would soon be cold. Her small feet were blistered and bleeding in her shoes. She was filthy and her hair was snarled from the burs. Her hands were aching and sticky and she could not keep up with her grandmother.
Her father carried her into the house and set her down at the table. She was to get cleaned up while her mother made a cold meal for the family, but she had already fallen asleep at the table. Muattar placed her hand on her little girl’s head and said “Sleep well, Malika – tomorrow you will have to get up early.”
For more information please take some time to google the Uzbek cotton fields. Unfortunately, due to the common outsourcing practices very few western supply chains are free from cotton produced by forced labour.
Please consider signing a petition to the president of the WORLD BANK and INTERNATIONAL LABOR ORGANIZATION (ILO) to report the Uzbek government’s use of forced labor and to publicly denounce reprisals against Uzbek citizens reporting the abuse. The petition can be found here.