Just working for wood: life inside Tajikistan’s silk industry
Silk production is still a major part of the country’s economy – and women bear the brunt of this harsh work
“Strength is one of the most interesting characteristics of silk,” declares an online ad for this precious fabric. “At first touch, you might be fooled into thinking silk is fragile but it’s actually one of the strongest fabrics there is. It may be elegant and gentle on your skin, but underneath the shine it’s brimming with power.”
This may be true. But not in the ways that consumers probably assume. Silk’s beauty and softness stand in stark contrast with the harsh reality of silk production, including the bonded labour that has long been associated with its processing.
Silk is a prominent part of the cultural heritage of Central Asia – which includes the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – where the fabric is much sought after. While silk production in the region dates back centuries, it intensified during the Soviet era, as did cotton, which is also indigenous to Central Asia. Both became part of rural inhabitants’ rhythm of life, not by choice, but via the Soviet Union’s all-encompassing state-planned economy.
Today, silk production is still a key part of some Central Asian economies, including in Tajikistan. The work is as hard as it’s always been, but, now, individuals bear the cost with little support.
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Individual responsibility – and liability
In Soviet times, the large-scale, state-owned and/or collective farms in lowland Tajikistan bred silkworms. The worms feed on mulberry leaves and on most farms, a portion of land was allocated to mulberry trees.
Farm production units known as brigades tasked individual labourers with silk production, sometimes in specifically designated places known as the pillakhona (silk room), where the caterpillars were kept and bred.
Nowadays, production volumes are much smaller than they were in the Soviet era. Tajik scientists, whose careers have centred on improving domestic caterpillar and mulberry tree varieties, talk with nostalgia about the past. They lament the demise of the domestic silk production sector and associated scientific research.
The state has retained ownership of the land and continues to stipulate production plans, but the responsibilities – and liabilities – of silk production now lie with individuals, not the state
Current hardship and insecurity affects people’s recollection of the past, and people who were engaged in silk production in the Soviet-era told me that, although the labour was no easier then than it is today, it was a collective endeavour.
The farm leadership helped cut and transport branches from the mulberry trees (which have traditionally lined the region’s cotton fields), to the places where the silkworms were bred. The remuneration was also fairer than it is today, they say.
Today, local authorities are responsible for the performance of farms in their area. Local officials coordinate the silk breeding. They distribute the worms and some materials needed for breeding, and regularly visit farmers and households during the production period, providing advice when needed.
Agrarian reform – which restructured large-scale farms into smaller, individual ones in most parts of Tajikistan – has complicated silk production. Land reform began in the early 1990s, following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and really took off after the mid-2000s. The state has retained ownership of the land and continues to stipulate production plans, but the responsibilities – and liabilities – of silk production now lie with individuals, not the state. These production plans include a wide range of agricultural commodities, and cotton still tops the list in many parts of Tajikistan's lowlands.
Farm restructuring has made work more challenging for those breeding silkworms. For example, farmers inevitably prioritise their own fields over those of their neighbours. Many spray insecticides on their vegetable beds, cotton fields or fruit trees. When these chemicals become airborne and drift, they can land on a neighbour’s mulberry trees. When those leaves are fed to the silkworms, the insecticides can severely affect the worms – and so this can trigger conflicts between farmers.
The production cycle: from egg to cocoon
As soon as the mulberry leaves begin to appear in early April, the cycle of silk production begins.
After the silkworm eggs (nowadays imported from China) are incubated until they hatch into larvae (caterpillars), they are distributed to farms. The process then takes about a month. The caterpillars feed only on mulberry leaves, and the breeding develops phase-wise, as the caterpillars mature.
Families engaged in silk breeding cut branches from the mulberry trees that line the fields and streets, take them home, usually on a donkey cart, and then chop the branches into smaller pieces to feed the worms. There are sequential periods in which the worms’ metamorphosis happens incrementally. They eat for a short period of time, sleep for one or two days, eat for one day, sleep for two days, eat, sleep, etc. Fresh leaves have to be supplied regularly. In the final stage, when the worms eat continuously, leaves have to be provided day and night, until the worms’ activity stops and the spinning of the cocoons starts. These cocoons are the final product.
Silk breeding is part of the state’s production plans in Tajikistan. Quotas are set at the national level, and trickle all the way down the chain to individual farms. As a result, silk production takes place under force. It is concentrated (and only possible) in lowland Tajikistan, where the mulberry trees flourish. Farmers cannot easily refuse. They have to signal loyalty to the authorities, which is important given that land ownership resides in the hands of the state.
Quotas per farm depend on the area of the farm, and is often tied to the amount of land allocated to cotton production, a legacy of the past. A basic contract establishes the monetary value of the silkworms allocated to a farmer, the expected output and the weight-based remuneration – in other words, how much the farmer will receive per kilo of cocoons produced. The price cannot be negotiated.
Farmers and households hand over the cocoons to district-level authorities, coordinated by Tajik Silk (Pillai Tojik). Many think that Tajik Silk is still a state agency, but it was privatised in 2019. It is now owned by a private company, Ganj, an enterprise linked to Faroz, an officially liquidated company owned by a relative of Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s president.
Until the early 2010s, cocoons were processed by a Tajik-Vietnamese company based in Tajikistan. Nowadays, the cocoons are exported to China, the world’s largest importer of silk cocoons, for procession into silk fabrics. The ‘Silk Road’ still exists.
Meagre pay for hard labour
Farmers may try to negotiate quotas or meet deficits in their production by buying cocoons from others. Rich farmers may transfer tasks to their less privileged neighbours, while the larger-scale farms divide silkworms among their workers.
While farmers usually have to follow the state-enforced production plan, other households and families get involved because of their need for firewood, rather than the financial reward, which is negligible.
Coal and gas are very expensive in Tajikistan, as is electricity, with the added complication that the latter’s supply is highly erratic, particularly in winter. Therefore rural families rely on the mulberry branches left over from the silk cycle to heat their homes (randomly cutting trees is not allowed). Dried manure and cotton stalks are also important fuels for cooking and heating.
Families often allocate one or two rooms of their house to the silkworms. They’re usually bred on bunk beds, in order to have more surface area to breed more worms and therefore produce more silk.
The work is labour-intensive, but the remuneration is paltry.
In 2020/21, the rate for 1 kilo of cocoons was 10 somoni (about $1 at the time), less for lower-quality cocoons. A 20 gramme box of silkworms is supposed to provide a yield of at least 50 kilos of cocoons. In ideal circumstances, that’s what one household will produce per breeding season (per box), bringing in a paltry income of just $50 per box. This was almost on a par with prices paid in neighbouring Uzbekistan in recent years, but three times lower than Nepal. When questioned by local producers, Tajik Silk says it does not have the capital to increase payments.
Unwinding threads: The role of women in silk
Women play a central role in the silk industry. Globally, they have been the main buyers of silk in the form of clothes and bedlinen. In many countries in Central and East Asia, silk fabrics are of great value. In Central Asia, silk has always been very important in the gift economy. Silk fabrics are still very expensive, and wearing a dress made of traditional woven silk fabrics – known locally as atlas, adras and ikat – symbolises status. And yes, I’ve been wearing atlas as well.
Women have also been prominent at the other end of the production chain in Central Asia, and other silk-producing countries. Although nurturing and caring for the caterpillars is collective labour, it’s the women who take the lead in most families. Spring is when many Tajik men leave for seasonal work elsewhere (particularly to Tajikistan’s richer northern neighbours, Kazakhstan and Russia), so female members of the family have to do most of the work.
The attention that civil society and academia pays to silk breeding tends to foreground the fate of the silkworms themselves, or the workers in factories involved in the final stages of silk manufacture. One ethical issue is that, traditionally, silkworms are killed – boiled alive, in fact — before they can emerge from the cocoon as white butterflies.
However, little attention has been paid to the human costs involved in primary production in places like Tajikistan, where women are subjected to weeks of harsh working conditions for meagre pay. Instead, aid donors such as the European Union have launched a €2m programme to revive the creation of sustainable ikat and silk in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
While silk fabric may be “elegant and gentle on your skin,” the labour conditions in primary silk production aren’t that gentle. Time to unwind the silk threads.
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