Uzbekistan’s practice of sending forced laborers to pick the cotton harvest causes a furor abroad every year. But now there are rumblings of discontent from within the country.
National University students have taken the unusual step of publicly complaining about being forced to help with the harvest, publishing an open letter to the prime minister and law-enforcement agencies on the Dunyo Uzbeklari (World of Uzbeks) opposition website.
Third-year male journalism students were ordered to the cotton fields by the rector and faculty deacon, says the letter. It is addressed to Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev; the prosecutor’s office; the National Security Service (SNB); the Higher Education Ministry; and the university rector, Mirzo Mukhamedov.
“Surely the legislation of Uzbekistan does not mention the responsibility of students for taking part in the cotton harvest?” the outraged students (who remained anonymous, no doubt fearing repercussions) ask. “Of course not!”
Students who do not wish to pick cotton could cough up 300,000 sums to buy themselves out, the letter said. That is equivalent to around $125 at the official exchange rate, or two months’ worth of a student’s living grant.
Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest relies on forced labor to help farmers meet government-set 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 have reported that this merely shifted the burden of forced labor onto older children (including students) and adults. Tashkent denies using forced labor at all.
Reports from this year’s harvest say that forced labor was widely used. Students were sent to the fields and public-sector workers were mobilized, the independent Uznews.net website reported.
Last month the US Department of Labor reported that Uzbekistan had made “no advancement” in eliminating the worst forms of child labor, although the International Labor Organization (ILO) has noted tentative progress.
“Things are improving,” ILO expert Harri Taliga said on November 1. “I personally was happy to learn that many of the recommendations made last year after our joint monitoring have already been implemented this year.”
The government conducted its own monitoring of the use of child labor in the harvest this year, with ILO assistance, and found 49 cases of children under 18 in the fields, as a result of which farmers and college directors were fined a total of 12 million sums ($5,000), Taliga said.
Uzbekistan reaped 3.4 million tons of cotton this year, President Islam Karimov said on October 24 in a gushing message of thanks to Uzbekistan’s cotton farmers for their “difficult and diligent labor.”