As the annual cotton harvest winds down, Uzbekistan's labor practices are once again facing scrutiny. A recently released report purports to offer proof that Tashkent, despite ratifying two international agreements designed to discourage the use of child labor, is continuing to send school-age children into the fields.
The mid-October release of the report, titled Forced Child Labor in Uzbekistan's 2008 Spring Agricultural Season, was timed to coincide with the peak of the harvesting season. It points out that in March and April of this year the Uzbek legislature ratified two International Labor Organization agreements - the Convention on Minimal Age of Employment and the Convention on Prohibition and Immediate Action for Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor. Despite this, Uzbek officials in May drafted tens of thousands of school students, some as young as 12 years old, to help prepare fields during the cotton planting season.
"Children suffered heatstroke, burns and a variety of infectious diseases from poor working conditions," the report stated. "School hours were truncated. And for some periods schools were closed altogether to spur children into the fields."
The report, prepared by the International Labor Rights Forum and Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan, focused on conditions in two districts in cotton-growing areas. Researchers declined to specify the areas in order to protect those interviewed from possible government retaliation. "The government has increased pressure on those it suspects of transmitting any news regarding child labor," the report said.
Parents who tried to keep their children in school and out of the fields were subjected to official pressure, the report said. A favorite tactic, according to the report, was public humiliation during meetings of neighborhood committees, or Mahallas. "Those families [that] fail to send their children to pick cotton are criticized; people speak out very negatively against such families," the report cited one parent as saying. "Therefore, not everyone is brave enough to express dissatisfaction."
Many local officials seemed aware that the use of child labor constituted a violation of national and international laws. However, some defended the nefarious practice as unavoidable. Hiring adults to do the work was too costly, and, even if the money were available, there is a severe shortage of adult labor in the Uzbek countryside, farm directors said.
"It's too expensive to hire adults," the report quotes one farm director as saying. "You've got to pay them a high wage. They demand defined working hours, respect for their rights. If you don't satisfy their demands, they don't work. Therefore, local governments and farmers find it convenient to send children out into the fields. ... They don't complain."
While the report documented the use of child labor only during the spring planting season, school children are believed to be widely involved in the ongoing gathering of the harvest. Photos posted on the news website Ferghana.ru in early October showed young people in the fields with bags full of cotton slung over their shoulders.
Leading US and European clothing retailers, including Wal-Mart, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Target and The Gap, are boycotting products that are known to contain Uzbek cotton. The campaign is linked to Uzbekistan's ongoing reliance on child labor.
Uzbekistan has sought to counter the economic pressure applied on Tashkent by the boycott by reorienting its cotton exports to Asian and Middle Eastern markets. Evidence that the government is feeling the effects of the boycott is inconclusive so far. At the Fourth Annual Cotton Fair, held in Tashkent on October 14-15, Uzbek officials signed deals worth approximately $1 billion to export 950,000 tons of cotton fiber. The chief purchasers included China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates, according to the pro-government website Gazeta.uz.