The Role of Labor in Cotton Harvesting – Challenges and Opportunities

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As the world’s 8th largest cotton producer, Uzbekistan has a long history of forced labor. In 2020, independent activists carried out third-party monitoring of the cotton harvest for child and forced labor.

Farmers are interested in mechanizing the harvest. However, they face barriers such as limited knowledge and information about mechanization.

  1. The Role of the Farmer

Farmers are responsible for planting, irrigating, spraying, and harvesting cotton. They must balance optimal growth with weather threats that degrade fiber quality or reduce yields. They can use chemicals called harvest aids to stimulate boll opening, mature and dry the crop for mechanical harvesting, or to remove leaves from the plant so that it is easier to separate the lint from the seed.

Traditionally, farmers picked their cotton by hand three to four times each season. Human pickers moved through fields with 10-foot-long sacks that could weigh up to 100 pounds when full. They were expected to meet daily production targets by an overseer or master who would whip them for failing.

After World War II, a number of factors changed the way that cotton was grown. Farmers in the Cotton South found that they needed to switch from plantation agriculture to growing rice and soybeans, which required less labor. In addition, higher industrial wages pulled away labor from the Cotton South to work in factories. The combination of these forces caused the decline in hand-picking.

Today, cotton is mostly produced in small-holder contexts. Many farmers grow cotton alongside other crops like maize, beans, peanuts, and sugar cane. Often, children are involved in the fieldwork. In some cases, they may be subjected to the worst forms of child labor if they work long hours and are exposed to pesticides. In other cases, however, they perform age-appropriate tasks and continue with their schooling.

For some, the choice of whether to pick or not is made for them by their families, who depend on the income generated from cotton harvests. For others, the decision is a result of contractual agreements with employers. In Uzbekistan, for instance, where forced labor of public sector employees was reduced to a record low during the 2021 cotton harvest after the global Covid-19 pandemic, many private migrant workers who were displaced by lockdowns in their countries of origin returned to their jobs in the fields.

However, even when conditions are favorable for cotton picking, farmers face challenges in finding suitable workers. Most farmers surveyed by the Solidarity Center said they could not hire enough people to help with the harvest. They indicated that local pickers are keen to work the first two passes of the cotton field but lose interest in the job as the season progresses and the need for a third or even fourth pass becomes apparent.

  1. The Role of the Picker

Cotton is a hand-picked crop, and the harvester takes on a very important role in the process. The harvester can be a tractor, a combine, or a mechanical picker. A mechanical picker can be used for different crops but is primarily designed to pick cotton. Today, the majority of the world’s cotton is picked by machines. This development has had a profound effect on society and the economy. In the past, many farmers were reluctant to switch from manual labor to machines. They were afraid to lose their market share to competitors who could produce cotton more cheaply. In addition, they had to pay for expensive machinery and were unfamiliar with the new equipment.

As a result, in the first decades of mechanization, only about 40 percent of the cotton crop was mechanically harvested. The remaining 60 percent was still picked by hand. This figure would change dramatically in the 1950s when a Hopson Harvester machine was invented in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. This machine was revolutionary. It combined a combine for wheat and corn with a cotton picker. It was the first machine that did everything a human could do in the fields and then some.

It was the harbinger of a huge change in the global economy. As mechanization became the norm, more and more people deserted their cotton farms in southern states. Though push factors like a lack of jobs and poor living conditions played a role, pull factors were more influential. Cotton picking is physically hard work, and the jobs that were available paid significantly less than manufacturing wages.

Uzbekistan is a country that has not fully mechanized the cotton harvest and is one of the few that still relies on manual labor to perform this critical task. The state imposes quotas on cotton production, and farmers are contractually obligated to produce these quotas or face sanctions such as land confiscation. The repressive nature of the government’s regime makes it difficult for farmers to escape this coercive system.

Local pickers are most interested in the harvest during the first two passes when cotton bolls are plentiful and the picking is relatively easy. But their interest wanes by the third pass when cotton is less and less mature. Moreover, it is difficult to attract pickers if the fields are located far from population centers.

  1. The Role of the Harvester

The cotton harvest is a crucial moment for farmers. The crop has to be harvested at the right time to ensure a good yield and the success of the entire season. For farmers that depend on the harvest for their livelihoods, a successful season is one of the main pillars of their income.

Cotton harvesting is a labor-intensive process that requires a large number of workers. It also involves a great deal of risk. For example, many pesticides used to protect cotton crops are toxic to human beings and pose a serious threat to human health. Even in small quantities, these chemicals can cause acute toxicity symptoms such as respiratory problems, eye and skin irritation, and mental disturbances. They can also lead to long-term effects such as Parkinson’s disease, asthma, and certain cancers.

Harvesters are machines that remove the bolls from cotton plants and then bundle them into bales. The bales are then transported to gins for processing into yarn, cloth, and other fabric products. A single bale of raw cotton can contain up to 600 pounds. America’s South grew two-thirds of the world’s cotton throughout the twentieth century. This was a key driver of southern economic development, but the region’s dependence on a single cash crop made it vulnerable to market shifts. The introduction of mechanical harvesting in the nineteenth century greatly increased the vulnerability of the South to these changes.

In the United States, several different harvester types, including combine harvesters, can work on a wide variety of crops, such as wheat and corn. Combination harvesters are more efficient than traditional single-purpose harvesters. However, they require significant training and experience to operate effectively.

Across the globe, there are also many different harvester types. Some are powered by steam, electricity, or natural gas, while others use diesel fuel. The type of harvester chosen by farmers depends on the type of cotton being grown, the soil conditions, and the availability of workers.

While some farmers rely on the services of a third-party harvesting contractor to manage the harvest, others employ their own employees to harvest their own cotton. The latter option is often more expensive, but it provides greater control over the employment conditions of their staff. The Cotton Campaign has called on brands to stop buying cotton from Uzbekistan until the country has eliminated forced labor and child labor in the field.

  1. The Role of the Buyer

Cotton harvesting is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process. Farmers must prepare the land, plant, and water the cotton crop, thin and weed it and then wait for the bolls to open and ready the cotton for harvesting. This can take 160 days after planting, depending on weather conditions.

Once harvested, the farmer must gin, dry, and mill the cotton, separating it from the lint, seeds, and leaves. Then it is prepared for international sale and distribution. Cotton producers can be paid late, if at all, and are often underpaid for their efforts. The amount of money earned from the harvest can make or break a family’s financial well-being.

Despite the challenges, there are opportunities for workers and consumers alike. The demand for ethically produced cotton could drive companies up the value chain, creating jobs with higher wages and helping to improve the lives of 250 million families worldwide involved in producing this precious crop.

The first step in this process is ensuring that cotton production occurs under decent working conditions. This will require companies to demonstrate compliance with good labor practices and amplify worker voices. In partnership with other organizations, the ILO is working to support the development of these strategies through a new project on eliminating child and forced labor in the cotton, textile, and garment value chains in target-producing countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin, and Zambia.

Forced labor in cotton production is widespread and varied, ranging from human trafficking to the forced recruitment of children as pickers. In some instances, it is tied to regional violent conflict and displacement, while in others, it is the result of hereditary debt or kinship obligations.

The Uzbek government has been engaged in a massive campaign of state-imposed forced labor during the cotton harvest, including the use of children as pickers. As of 2018, more than 1.54 million Uzbeks, or one-third of all pickers, were state mobilized into cotton picking. While some were recruited through traditional channels, most were moved into the industry via coercive labor transfer programs, including those released from internment camps.

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