Child labor in Uzbekistan usually brings cotton fields to mind, but the reality is that work in the countryside accounts for a small part of the problem.
Recent efforts by law enforcement starkly illustrate the issue.
Police in the capital of Uzbekistan have said this week that in the first two months of 2017 they took 1,400 children who moved from the regions to find work in the city off the streets.
The bulk of those children were reportedly engaged in such menial labor as tugging carts at markets or working in carwashes. Officials cited by RFE/RL’s Uzbek service say the children detained in these sweeps have been sent to centers for the support of underage children.
Poverty and unemployment in rural areas forces many families to resort to sending school-age children to look for some form of income in urban areas, where work is more readily available. The perceived advantage of having people so young undertake the task is that they are less susceptible to harassment from the police and usually are not forced to pay bribes. And since many of them do not even have internal passports, even basic document checks are often impossible. In families where the father is living abroad, a child is often the only person in household able to generate any kind of income. Employers are also more likely to take on workers who will agree to the lowest salaries possible.
According to former policeman Aibek Muminov, children often prove highly adaptable and move from one city to another with ease.
“I always knew that on my patch there were children from the regions who work as day-laborers, helping out in bakeries or workshops. There is a lot of demand for child labor in carwashes, almost every single one has children working there. But we are people too and we understand that they are just working to feed their parents,” Muminov told EurasiaNet.org.
Gulasal Kamolova, a journalist who has reported extensively on underage laborers, told EurasiaNet.org that the children are usually making money for the most basic necessities — shoes, clothing and bread.
"In reality, the number of street children is way greater than the 1,500 that has been spoken about. In every bazaar in the country, there are children pushing carts. Most of them go to work after school. But this problem cannot be solved as long as their parents do not have jobs,” Kamolova said.
In addition to the matter of child labor, older high school and college students are routinely forced to go out into the fields during cotton harvest season. The practice is still commonplace despite the nominal government ban on people below the age of 18 working in cotton fields.
Authorities have announced they are taking measures — albeit not huge ambitions ones — to try and clamp down on the proliferation of child labor.
As of March 1, each schools will be staffed with a head of the Kamolot youth movement — an organization modeled on the Soviet-era Komsomol. That person’s responsibilities will include monitoring attendance. Schools are also to be installed with dedicated offices to meet with students’ parents, presumably with an end to discreetly discuss family problems.
There are in theory laws in place to discourage child labor.
In October 2013, Uzbekistan adopted a law that makes parents that fail to ensure their children get proper educations liable for fines between five and 10 times the official monthly minimum salary (currently around $25). Anecdotal evidence indicates that the effectiveness of such legislation has been limited.