Uzbekistan's annual cotton fair opened yesterday in Tashkent, with more than 300 companies from 34 countries participating and expectations that at least 600,000 tons of cotton will be sold this year, the state news site gazeta.uz reported. Local and international human rights groups continued to protest that forced child labor is once again the source of some of the output, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights said in a newsletter published October 12.
Prices as much as $1.00 a pound are at an all-time high on the world market, as floods in Pakistan and cold weather in China have reduced global production. Buyers from Russia, India, China, South Korea, Iran, Turkey, Bangladesh and Pakistan are expected to be the main participants in the Tashkent fair, Radio Ozodlik, the Uzbek Service of Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reports. Western companies have increasingly joined the boycott of Uzbek cotton, but a few companies still remain, the European Human Rights Centre in Berlin reported.
Uzbekistan's Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev issued a statement that 600,000 tons had been put up for sale, and officials expected to make deals totalling some $500 million, the Daily Times of Pakistan and vesti.uz reported.
Uzbekistan signed the relevant conventions of the International Labor Organization and passed legislation against child labor in 2009, but the practice of exploiting children for field work continues. This harvest season has been characterized by a beefed up presence of security troops in the fields, with soldiers forcing state workers to fulfil government quotas -- and keeping away the prying eyes of reporters.
Human rights activists from five groups in Tashkent, Jizzakh, Karshi and Samarkand issued a joint call on foreign companies to boycott Uzbek cotton due to the use of forced child labor and abusive conditions for all workers in a system where farmers are forced to fulfill state quotas and accepted fixed prices. "By buying Uzbek cotton, you become unwilling accomplices of those who have turned Uzbek children into cotton slaves and are contributing to corruption in Uzbekistan," the activists warned.
Uzbek rights monitors have been traveling through the provinces and documenting their sightings of children in the fields, Radio Ozodlik reports.
“Schoolchildren of all provinces in Uzbekistan have been in the fields since the 12th and 13th of September. Classes have been stopped. Mainly 7th through 9th graders and college students are involved in harvesting. I saw it myself and took photos”, says Elena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan.
Following up on some reports from residents, Urlaeva went to the Yukori-Chirchik district of Tashkent region and found children at work. She says that farmers now have security guards in camouflage and concrete walls built to obstruct the view of children working in the fields, and a school principal blew a whistle calling for help to chase her away.
This year, mosques have also been pressed into service to turn out people to the harvest, BBC's Uzbek Service reports. After announcing morning prayers from loudspeakers, the imams have urged people to help with the harvest, and announced that 120 soms per kilogram are being offered. Marketplaces and restaurants have been closed during the day as everyone heads off to the fields.
While some districts seem to some extent to have taken on board the prohibition against using children to pick cotton and aren't removing elementary students from classes, they are looking the other way as parents send 9th graders who are 14-15 years of age into the fields after school.
Others are continuing the practice of using even younger children as field hands. Ferghana.ru reports that on September 27, authorities in Tashkent region sent fifth-graders to the cotton fields. Reporters say they personally witnessed the students picking cotton after school.
Unlike past years before the law was passed, when school administrators openly organized the bussing of children, now local administrators tell school principals and parents to make their own arrangements with farmers, says ferghana.ru:
At the meetings we had an announcement about an order of the governor [head of administration] of the district that everyone will work in the fields. By order of the governor, principals must find their own farmers to negotiate with about harvesting by schoolchildren, as well as take on transportation costs.
Teachers told ferghana.ru that some farmers are not particularly interested in child labor because their production level is less and they tire more easily than adults. If they bus in students, they face the issue of transportation costs, as a bus for 40 people can run 50,000 soums (about $23) per day.