Authorities in Uzbekistan don't like to discuss how they push schoolchildren, college students and teachers to toil in the country’s feudal cotton industry. But now that spring planting is underway, again a few brave activists are bringing us reports on both children and adults being dragged out of school and forced to work in the cotton fields, in dangerous conditions for no pay.
A two-page report by the Expert Working Group, one of the only independent NGOs left in Uzbekistan, provides the latest details, including testimonies. From the English version:
From the first days of May the Uzbek youth at secondary schools, lyceums and colleges in Bukhara, Samarkand, Jizzakh, Syrdarya, Khorezm regions and autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan were forced to attend spring cotton cultivation activities. This type of work usually includes weeding and hilling of the ground. It can be suggested that the same type of practice with forced spring labor is taking place in all other areas of the country. The minors from secondary schools involved in this type of forced spring labor are 13-16 years old (7-8-9th grades of school) and minors from lyceums and colleges are 16-18 years old.
From Monday to Friday the Uzbek youth involved in forced spring labor attend the local cotton fields from 13.00 afternoon till 18.00 evening. And on Saturdays and Sundays they attend the cotton fields from 09.00 of morning till 18.00 evening. Thus on Saturdays the classes for these groups of children are cancelled. The sources say the spring forced labor for the children would last until May 20-25.
The report likewise notes that “Uzbek authorities have never acknowledged the forced child labor problem and have avoided any public promise to eradicate it.”
Children must bring their own food and water and walk to the fields, says the report. Of course, in deeply corrupt Uzbekistan, there is an alternative: One college student from Samarkand region described bribing his university deputy director with approximately $20 for an exemption so he could study for exams.
The work is a morale-killer, one young teacher in Karakalpakstan explains:
Sometimes it is so difficult to understand whether I am a teacher or a farmer. During spring months we are forced to be involved in weeding and hilling of the cotton plants; during summer days we are forced to get involved in chiseling of cotton plants; and during autumn season we are forced to gathering cotton crops... I have been thinking to quit my job in the educational sector if I find a better option.
Children, students and their teachers are captive and easy to exploit. And they’re available: With Uzbekistan’s lackluster, managed economy unable to create enough jobs locally, many adults migrate abroad – where they get paid.