BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Cotton growing is a profitable business that all residents in the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region want to get involved in, especially since most of the labour is now done by machinery, a leading grower said.
"The claim that 'forced labour' is involved in the cotton growing industry is just a joke for us," said Mr Saderdin Ahat, manager of the Demin Cotton Growers Cooperative in Shaya county. "We have expanded the growing area this year because quality Xinjiang cotton is in high demand."
He added: "Our agricultural activity isn't affected by the boycott of Xinjiang cotton from some international clothing brands at all.
"The price of Xinjiang cotton is even higher than last year. I think people all know what's going on behind the boycott."
The cooperative in southern Xinjiang's Aksu prefecture, with 1015.8 hectares of cotton farmland, has 10 large seed-planting machines and four drones to spray pesticides.
"The mechanisation level involved in our production has reached more than 95 per cent," said Mr Saderdin. "We only need a few people to pick cotton on the edges of fields that large machines cannot reach."
On March 30 last year, the Better Cotton Initiative, a global not-for-profit organisation, issued a statement expressing concerns over doing business with licensed growers in Xinjiang during the 2020-21 cotton season. The concerns were over allegations of forced labour. Boycott measures were then taken by international brands including H&M and Nike.
The allegations lack any factual basis as Xinjiang has achieved large-scale mechanisation of cotton production through establishing high-quality farmland, land transfers and national agricultural machinery subsidies, according to a research report on cotton production in Xinjiang published on Tuesday (June 15).
The report - Tainting Xinjiang Cotton Cannot Be Tolerated: The research report on whether 'forced labour' exists in cotton production in Xinjiang - was issued by the Human Rights Institute of Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing.
The increasing level of mechanisation in cotton production in southern Xinjiang can be attributed to multiple factors, according to the report.
The emergence of cotton cooperatives and commercial services of cotton production increased the use of machinery and equipment. Government subsidies also significantly reduced the prices of agricultural machinery, the report said, adding that through mechanisation large cotton farms had tried to reduce labour costs.
The research team conducted field research mainly in southern Xinjiang's Aksu and Kashgar prefectures since March.
In Aksu, the cost of manual cotton picking is about five to seven times that of mechanised cotton picking. Besides picking cotton in areas that cannot be reached by machines, long staple cotton can only be harvested by hand.
Compared with other occupations, the high income from cotton picking makes it a very attractive job for people in southern Xinjiang, said the report.
According to the region's 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), Xinjiang plans to ensure 80 per cent of its cotton is picked by machines.
Mr Saderdin said the seasonal picking jobs can be easily filled by people from nearby villages.
Experienced cotton pickers can pick 100kg to 160kg of cotton a day, which means they can earn 10,000 yuan (S$2,073) to 20,000 yuan per harvest season, which lasts about two months, he added.
"Who would turn down a job opportunity like that? Rather than being forced to pick cotton, the competition to get the job is actually heated," Mr Saderdin said.