When it comes to the use of child labor to help bring in Tajikistan’s
cotton crop, the government’s heart may be in the right place. Officials in Dushanbe have tried to prohibit the practice. But practical circumstances in the impoverished Central Asian nation mean that children are still found out in the fields during the harvest season.
The cotton sector in Tajikistan appears caught in a downward spiral, and the child-labor issue is but one of many problem areas. Antiquated infrastructure hampers innovation and productivity, while a drop in global demand has ensnared many farmers in a debt trap. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Local officials also seem to be captives of Soviet-style thinking: in many rural areas, political bosses continue to use their clout and allocate precious state resources to prop up the cotton sector, despite decreasing yields and an escalating food crisis. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
According to statistics released in late October, this year's cotton harvest appears on track to hit its target, with roughly 247,000 tons already picked, according to a report distributed by the Asia-Plus news agency. State projections for 2009 call for the harvest to reach 350,000 tons. The 2009 target, however, represents a tacit acknowledgement by the government that the cotton sector is suffering from a severe case of financial sclerosis. The 2008 harvest was a total disaster -- with just 353,000 tons picked out of a targeted 552,000 tons. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In Tajikistan's southern districts abutting the Afghan border, most of the laborers picking cotton these days are women; the rest are children, some as young as six. A large percentage of Tajik men are labor migrants, and have left the country in search of work. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
While the demographic profile of the domestic labor force certainly plays a role in the continuing use of child labor, the practice is also intertwined with an apparent breakdown in communications. "Child labor is used on a large scale," said Nargis Zokirova, Director of the Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law, an NGO. "In 2006 our president issued a decree prohibiting child labor in cotton fields. The Ministry of Education also issued a decree prohibiting taking children to the cotton fields. But, despite those decrees, children are still taken to the cotton fields. When we talked to teachers, they didn't know about those decrees."
That children are harvesting cotton is widely accepted. Less clear is whether children are forced to pick at the expense of their studies. "Schools are not closed down during the picking season [. . . ] children are taken to the cotton fields after school," Takhmina Babadjanova of the NGO Amparo in Khujand told EurasiaNet. "Kids don't skip school. After school they go home, have something to eat, change their clothes and then they go pick the cotton."
But, she added, local officials do use coercive methods on teachers and children. "The kids have problems getting their books if they don't go pick cotton," Babadjanova said. "During exams and finals, they might have problems with their grades. Or there have been some cases, very rare, when the students [were] expelled from school for not going to pick cotton. All of this causes problems for parents, of course. They worry."
Zokirova, the human rights advocate, noted that a cycle of fear seems to swirl in schools during the harvest season. "Teachers told us that they were forced by the principal of a school to take the children to the cotton fields," she said. "When we talked to the kids, they said that they were forced to go to the cotton field by the teachers. They also said that if they wouldn't go, teachers threatened to expel them from school."
A network of 13 local NGOs issued a report in late October that gauged Tajikistan's adherence to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. It estimated that child labor accounts for up to 40 percent of the cotton harvest's total tonnage. It also asserted that children endure harsh conditions in the fields. "The children labor under difficult conditions, including very hot weather, poor quality food and water, and a lack of necessary medicines," the report stated.
The few men who have not migrated abroad in search of work appear to be supervising. One, who called himself a brigadier, told EurasiaNet that the workers do not get paid regularly, adding that he and his team had not been paid in over six months. They are forced to steal some of the harvest, he said, simply to feed their families.
With the focus on cotton, which accounts for 11 percent of Tajikistan's GDP according to the NGO network's report, wheat and other staples must be imported. Western aid workers and diplomats say the biggest threat to Tajikistan's stability is not Islamic radicals or impoverished returning migrant men, but food insecurity in the winter months.
Observers make frequent comparisons to neighboring Uzbekistan. An international campaign against forced child labor there prompted Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, to boycott Uzbek cotton last year.
"Overall, Tajikistan doesn't look bad because Uzbekistan is much worse," a western diplomat said on condition of anonymity. Tajikistan is "making some progress to do away with child labor, but it is a similar scenario [to Uzbekistan], just on a smaller scale."
"The issue here is not just about child labor, but about the exploitation of all laborers, including women," the diplomat concluded.
The general decline of the cotton sector has profound implications for education in Tajikistan. On the governmental side, the decrease in revenue coming in from the cotton sector hampers the state's ability to make infrastructure improvements. "Due to the expanding population under 15 years of age, many districts need additional school buildings. To accommodate all students, some schools work in two or even three shifts" of only a few hours per day, said Katherine Lapham of the Open Society Institute's Education Support Program. [Editor's note: EurasiaNet, like the Education Support Project, operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute].
As far as pupils are concerned, the deepening economic crisis stands to hamper the ability of many to learn, Lapham said. "This might worsen as the economic crisis deepens -- with no remittances and poor harvests. Families will make sure that they can purchase enough food before they will be able to worry about school supplies," she said.