Uzbekistan has long faced international scorn for forcing children to pick its cotton. Because Tashkent will not allow international observers to see how its promises of ending the practice are working out, journalists have been left to fill the void.
This year, journalists are finding fewer children in the cotton fields. But conscripted in their place: doctors, nurses and other government employees – along with the same high school and university students as before.
On October 16, the BBC reported that “Tashkent's authorities have required every district to contribute 330 medical staff” to the cotton effort:
Uzbekistan is one of the world's main producers of cotton and the crop is a mainstay of its economy. The government controls production and enforces Soviet-style quotas to get the harvest off the fields as quickly as possible.
A history of using child and forced labour at harvest time has led to a number of retailers - including H&M, Marks and Spencer and Tesco - to pledge to source their cotton from elsewhere.
In response, earlier this year Uzbekistan's Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev issued a decree banning children from working in the cotton fields. Yet many adults, including teachers, cleaners and office workers, are still forced to return to the land during October and November.
This year, like last year, medical staff have been ordered to join them. There are reports of patients in towns being turned away because their doctor is "in cotton".
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting also has some details. IWPR notes that while fewer children are in the fields thanks to international pressure, high school and college students are still being forced to harvest.
The teenagers are set a quota of 60 kilograms of cotton a day. The government has monopoly control over cotton purchases from farmers, and this year it doubled the rate set for paying pickers to 200 soms (around eight US cents) per kilogram.
If a school pupil or student has the money, they can pay some needy adult to do their work for them, at roughly nine dollars a day. […]
A teacher in Syrdarya province in central Uzbekistan said all the staff at his school had to go and pick cotton. The school head offered one alternative – paying a fine of 400,000 soms, about 160 dollars, as a form of compensation for not working on the harvest.
“That’s more than a month’s wages for me, so I have to go and pick cotton,” the teacher said. “There’s no one in the school and no classes are running anyway.”
Last week, Radio Free Europe suggested police had beaten a teenager to death when, feeling unwell, he tried to leave the cotton fields.