It’s September and that means it’s cotton-harvesting time in Uzbekistan. As the kids return to school (often via the cotton fields), Tashkent has issued its annual denial that they are forced to pick the “white gold.” But forget trying to independently confirm there is no forced child labor in Uzbekistan.
The government continues to refuse to allow observers from the International Labor Organization, a branch of the United Nations that monitors international labor standards, to monitor the cotton harvest, the Cotton Campaign reports. [Editor’s Note: The Cotton Campaign receives support from the Open Society Foundations; EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of OSF.]
Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced in August that it is forbidden to use children to harvest cotton and that schoolchildren shouldn’t even be near the fields during harvest season. However, UzNews and Radio Free Europe’s Uzbek Service note that Mirziyoyev’s decree is a yearly song and dance, and that as early as September 5, students from Jizzakh, a town in Uzbekistan’s northeast, were rounded up into buses and sent off to pick cotton in fields about 70 kilometers away.
To give an idea of just how central the cotton crop is to the economy of 30 million people, customers at some banks in the capital are reportedly unable to make withdrawals because the banks’ cash supplies are being used to pay for the cotton harvest. UzNews reports that this is a normal problem around cotton-harvest time, when Uzbek banks, the majority of which are state-run, send their cash reserves to smaller, regional banks to pay cotton pickers.
Residents of Tashkent who attempt to withdraw money are being told that “all cash is sent for cotton,” according to the UzNews report.
Cotton is one of Uzbekistan’s major export commodities and, just as in Soviet times, growers are expected to meet government-issued quotas. For their work, teachers are paid about $0.05 per kilogram and can average (especially with the help of their students’ little fingers) about 50 kilos a day.