Uzbekistan has made “no advancement” in eliminating the worst forms of child labor, the US Department of Labor has found, despite Tashkent’s efforts to remove younger children from the cotton fields.
The judgment will come as a blow to the administration of strongman President Islam Karimov, which – under sustained international pressure – says it has banned children from picking cotton and last year invited the International Labor Organization (ILO) in to monitor the issue.
“Notwithstanding initiatives to reduce child labor, Uzbekistan has received this [“no advancement”] assessment based on the government's continued complicity in the use of forced child labor,” the Labor Department’s annual Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, released October 8, state.
“Although the government continues to publicly deny the use of forced labor, including of children, in the cotton harvest, information indicates that children continue to be required to engage in the worst forms of child labor in cotton production,” it continued.
The findings acknowledged that Tashkent had by and large ensured that children under 15 “were able to continue to attend school during the harvest season,” but said local officials continued shutting down colleges and lyceums, “mobilizing children ages 15 to 17 to pick cotton to meet the government-mandated harvest quotas.”
In 2012, Tashkent – facing widespread international pressure over its widely documented use of child labor to harvest its main cash crop – moved to take younger children out of the cotton fields. However, human rights groups reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children and adults, while Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
“For the 2012 harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens, children and adults – including its teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions on threat of punishment,” Human Rights Watch found in a report published last year. The picture in 2013 was much the same, a study by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights found.
“Forced labor cotton production takes a heavy toll on Uzbek children,” Umida Niyazova, the forum’s director, said in response to the latest findings. “Not only were older children mobilized en masse in 2013, but teachers and other public-sector workers were as well.”
Initial reports from this year’s cotton harvest, which began last month, suggest a similar pattern. Students have been sent to the fields, children’s education is suffering as teachers are sent to pick cotton, and public-sector workers are being mobilized for the harvest, the independent Uznews.net website has reported.
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest rests on forced labor to help farmers meet government-set quotas to pick the crop. Cotton pickers are paid a pittance: 150-200 sums per kilo (7-10 cents at the official exchange rate at the time) last year, according to the Uzmetronom.com website.
Forced laborers can buy their way out: The going rate last year was 400,000 sums ($200, or five times the minimum wage), Uzmetronom.com said.
In 2013 Uzbekistan allowed the ILO to send a limited mission to monitor child labor. It stated that “systematic child labor was not found in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest,” but found occasional cases of children aged 16 to 17 picking cotton in violation of Uzbek law.
The ILO said the authorities “took follow-up action including assisting the children back to school and in some cases reprimanding, warning, and penalizing farmers and the persons responsible.” It complimented Tashkent on its “positive political will to address allegations of forced labor.”
Uzbekistan allowed the ILO in under sustained international pressure which has seen 153 brands (including Wal-Mart, Disney, and Levi Strauss) sign a pledge “to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products” until Tashkent ends forced labor.