Students of State Agricultural University work in cotton fields

More than 100 students from the Agronomy Department of Azerbaijan's State Agricultural University have joined cotton workers on a field in Ganja to "enhance their theoretical knowledge with practical, hands-on experience, show their support, and familiarize themselves with innovative cotton picking technologies", as a recent post on the University's Facebook page states.

The social media post explained that students had been picking cotton every Saturday, earning 0.2 manats for every kilo of cotton picked, and that they believed they were "benefiting from all aspects of this job."

Azerbaijani cotton fields have come under the spotlight this summer when hundreds of agricultural workers were poisoned over the course of several weeks due to toxic pesticides.

In 2016, President Ilham Aliyev had announced a new strategy to increase cotton production, aiming to match export numbers from a time when the country was one of the world's leading producers. Economists doubt that the new policy will bring the desired profit, arguing that the extensive use of land for cotton sowing (2017 has seen a 160% increase compared to 2016) will diminish pastures, reduce meat production and thus push up prices.

Apart from economic concerns, one of the main points of criticism has been the use of forced labor to fulfill cotton production quotas, often sugar-coated as volunteering by officials. Media have published numerous articles confirming that students and state employees are sent onto the fields to pick the country's so-called white gold.

Meydan TV has reported on several instances of citizens being forced by their employers to pick otton. Earlier this year, a woman working in a nursery in Ujar said that she had repeatedly been sent to weed cotton fields, and that she did not dare to refuse out of fear of losing her job.

Staff members of the Bilasuvar District Hospital have shared the same experience. In September last year, an ambulance car involved in a car accident turned out to carry hospital workers back from their cotton picking duties in the fields.

In Kurdamir, state-employed technical workers reached out to Meydan TV, worried that picking cotton during harvest season would become a regular activity: "The hospital management held a meeting and told staff that they had to pick cotton. They threatened that they would fire us if we did not do it. All technical workers had to go pick cotton. We did it because there was no other way for us."

According to lawyer Javad Javadov, using volunteers to work in cotton fields is a violation of Article 35 of the constitution. The Azerbaijani law on volunteering passed in 2009 classifies volunteer activities as unpaid and of social value. Volunteers cannot work in commercial entities, and it is prohibited to use them to compensate for labor shortage.

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