Prague, 7 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Cotton is a major and often the sole source of income for many villagers in Uzbekistan. The harvest season lasts for only three months each year. But wages are low in Uzbekistan for cotton pickers, and the lure of big money leads some to travel to neighboring countries such as Kazakhstan during cotton-picking season.
"I have been going to Kazakhstan to pick cotton for the past five or six years," says 20-year-old Iqbol Hasanova from southern Uzbekistan. "I earn 150,000 to 200,000 tenges [about $1,000 to $1,500] each year. I also pick cotton in Uzbekistan, but it lasts only for a week or two. When there is no more cotton in Uzbekistan’s [fields], we go to Kazakhstan."
Kazakh farmers pay 60 tenges ($0.40) for each kilogram of cotton. In Uzbekistan, one of the world's largest cotton producers, farmers are not allowed to sell the cotton they grow to anyone but state agencies. The government establishes fixed prices for cotton. This year, it is 50 Uzbek sums ($0.05) per kilogram. By contrast, a loaf of the cheapest bread in Uzbekistan costs 160 sums.
Hasanova worked in Kazakhstan for more than a month this season and says she earned some $1,300 picking around 100 kilograms of cotton each day. That's a significant amount of money in Uzbekistan, where the average monthly salary is around $30 and which is rarely paid on time.
But illegal labor migrants must endure harsh living and working conditions to earn that kind of money. Hasanova speaks of the conditions she says she and 20 other people lived in this autumn.
"The house we stayed in was old and unfurnished," she says. "They gave us only blankets. They fed us only once a day, in the evening. For breakfast and lunch, we had some sweets, like cookies, or bread. Well, the thing is that you don’t think of your stomach there. You think of what you can earn. We go there to earn money, not to eat."
The trafficking of illegal labor migrants appears to be a well-organized, profitable business. Traffickers operate in many towns and villages across Uzbekistan. They are paid by Kazakh farmers, who seek cheaper labor.
Crossing The River
Recruiters go from door to door asking for volunteers to work in Kazakhstan. When the number of volunteers reaches 15 to 20, they are taken to points along the Uzbek-Kazakh border. In some cases, at various river crossings, they are met by two groups of men -- each standing on opposite banks. The men pull the illegal migrants across the river on inflatable balloons attached to ropes.
One Uzbek migrant told RFE/RL about the journey: "We get up early in the morning, at 5 a.m., and go to the river. We use ropes to cross the river. Sometimes we take our shoes off, roll up our pants, and walk in the water. Then we put shoes on again and continue walking."
The man said illegal migrants often bribe border-patrol officers or the police. If they don't have enough money, he says, their passports are taken away. In some cases, they are imprisoned.
Hasanova recalls one harrowing incident when she was stopped by the border patrol. "If the soldiers catch you, they demand money," she says. "Once, I was asked to give 10,000 sums [$10]. I didn’t have that much money. One of them grabbed my arm. He wanted me to get in a car. I refused and jumped in the river. I said, ‘You can shoot me, but I am not getting in your car.' So, I decided to jump in the river."
Hasanova says she managed to swim to the Kazakh side and reached the plantation where her Kazakh employers were waiting for her.
This year, Hasanova says she and some of her fellow villagers who were working on a Kazakh cotton plantation decided to return to Uzbekistan after earning all the money they needed. But she said there was no easy way to escape from her Kazakh employers and Uzbek recruiters.
Corrupt Border Officials
"On my way there, they bribed custom and border-control officials," she says. "They usually cover each person’s expenses. Therefore, they didn’t want me to go. Many people wanted to leave. But there was still a lot of cotton in the fields. Therefore, they said: ‘No, we spent a lot of money for you.' And they didn’t let us go."
Now back home, Hasanova says she'll use the money she earned in Kazakhstan sparingly to make ends meet. She knows there is unlikely to be another chance to earn money before next autumn’s cotton-picking season.
(Lobar Qaynarova, an RFE/RL correspondent in southern Uzbekistan, contributed to this report.)