A recent panel discussion at the Open Society Institute highlighted the ongoing problem of forced child labor in Uzbekistan and the efforts of non-governmental groups to enlist governments and international institutions in the cause of persuading Uzbekistan to end the practice. (EurasiaNet is funded by the Open Society Foundations under the auspices of its Central Eurasia Project--ed.)
Daniel Stevens of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asia and Caucacus, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London spoke about his Centre's new study of the Uzbek cotton industry What Has Changed? Progress in Eliminating the Use of Forced Child Labour in the Cotton Harvests of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,. Researchers found that systematic and institutionalized forms of forced child persist. The practice is difficult to eradicate because the reforms intended to transition Uzbekistan to private agriculture have largely been superficial, as the government still maintains a monopoly on export licenses and sets cotton quotas and prices, and farmers become dependent on local administrators for supplies. With adults migrating outside of Uzbekistan for better-paid labor, the incentive for cash-strapped farmers is to use child labor, and local administrators tasked with meeting government quotas exploit children in the harvest.
Umida Niyazova, an Uzbek émigré and leader of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, described worrisome new trends this year involving increased police presence and harassment of human rights monitors who tried to track child labor. Niyazova's group verified that despite the Uzbek leadership's claims to the contrary, the practice of sending children into the fields continued. At first mainly older children were dispatched early in September, but then the recruitment of children as young as 10 increased over the period of the harvest due to a shorter season with impending cold weather, and the high price of cotton on the world market this year after floods in Pakistan and China. Children earn only 5 cents a kilo and at most $4-5 a day, and have to pay for food and work clothes out of their wages.
A special guest invited by OSI to the meeting was Dr. Susan Bissell, UNICEF’s Chief of Child Protection. UNICEF has been under fire from NGOs due to its failure to take up explicitly the issue of forced child labor in Uzbekistan and its use of an outdated survey that minimized the extent of the problem. Dr. Bissell began by noting the premiere of "Not My Life," a movie on child trafficking sponsored by UNICEF, and commented that "there was no aspect of childhood that wasn't damaged in some way in every country in the world," and advocated a global approach for improving children's rights.
Dr. Bissell said UNIFEF had raised with the government of Uzbekistan “the links between agricultural reform and child labor,” and Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, in his trip to Central Asia last year, had warned the leadership of the need to institute reforms. She said that while UNICEF was working with the government "to promote social change," Tashkent was "apparently impervious to the international boycotts".
While UNICEF staff had observed the use of children in the mass mobilization for the cotton harvest, said Dr. Bissell, they did not see it in the uniform manner in which NGOs had reported. Even so, she acknowledged that the government “was not adhering to its international obligations”.
NGOs have expressed expectations that UNICEF should do more to validate and act upon their reports about the use of forced child labor. Yet Dr. Bissell cautioned that UNICEF is not a monitoring organization .
"We're not police. We're not monitors," she explained, and could only work with local governments to try to ameliorate some of the abusive practices. She cited some efforts in the last harvest in some provinces of Uzbekistan that reportedly yielded "some limited success". In those areas where UNICEF collaborated with local administrations, the age of the child workers was raised to at least 14, and the period of mobilization was shorter, she said. Even so, she cautioned that labor in the cotton harvest was "one of the most hazardous forms of work," and "was not acceptable, whether forced or not". She ascribed the chronic reliance on child labor to the frustrations of officials who were under political pressure to meet quotas, and farmers in debt poverty unable to pay adult wages.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) is the body that is best equipped to do monitoring of labor conditions, said Dr. Bissell. The problem with putting a development agency like UNICEF into this role is that their observations could be incomplete and they could unwittingly report a situation as better than it was, she added. Indeed, that was the charge of NGO critics, but UNICEF has now dropped the outdated survey used in 2006 which was widely discredited by international groups for missing the extent of state exploitation of school children in the cotton campaign.
Unfortunately, the Uzbek government has still not invited the ILO to enter the country during the cotton season, although European Commission President José Manuel Barroso did raise the ILO request during his meeting with Karimov in Brussels.