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.
The use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is becoming rarer, but there were indications that adults are being press-ganged into service this year, the World Bank has said in a report.
While offering hope of improvement, the report published on November 20 evinced disquiet about the harassment of independent harvest monitors — a sure indication authorities remain nervous about damage incurred to the country’s cotton public image in recent years.
The findings were based on observations by the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was this year asked to broaden its remit by checking for signs of forced labor.
Claims that child labor is on the wane echoes conclusions from independent campaigners since 2012, when the government banned the practice following a punishing cotton boycott by leading western brands.
“Authorities have taken a range of measures to reduce the incidence of child labor and make it socially unacceptable,” the World Bank said.
The assessment is broadly shared.
Apparent efforts by Uzbekistan to reduce reliance on underage workers prompted the U.S. State Department to promote Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to Tier 2 on its watch list in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.
The burden of meeting harvest quotas has instead shifted to adults, who are often recruited against their will.
“Large numbers of citizens seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity. But organized recruitment of large numbers of people in such a short period of time carries certain risks linked to workers’ rights, which need further work, and certain indicators of forced labor have been observed,” the World Bank said.
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.
Human rights groups have long urged consumers and apparel manufacturers to boycott cotton from Uzbekistan, the world’s second largest cotton exporter, because it is picked using forced and child labor. But as the number of international – mostly Western – manufacturers pledge to eschew Uzbek fibers, Tashkent is looking east, increasing exports to countries where human rights are less of a concern.
In August, Uzbekistan signed a deal to supply 200,000 metric tons of cotton fiber – about one-third of exports – to Bangladesh annually. Now Beijing is ready to purchase 300,000 metric tons – over half of Uzbekistan’s total cotton fiber exports – a year, Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported on September 25.
"Accords on stable annual supplies to the tune of at least 300,000 metric tons have been achieved by the governments of the two countries. 'Firm' contracts will be signed in October as part of a cotton fair in Tashkent," RIA Novosti quoted a source in the Uzbek cotton industry as saying.
RIA Novosti said that Uzbek cotton exports were expected to total no less than 600,000 metric tons in the 2012-2013 season, slightly less than 620,000 metric tons sold abroad last year.
The new deal means Bangladesh and China will together account for over 83 percent of Uzbek cotton exports. Previously, Bangladesh accounted for 35 percent, China for 15 percent and South Korea for 7 percent, according to RIA Novosti. (Uzbekistan annually produces over 3 million metric tons of raw cotton and over 1 million metric tons of cotton fiber; about 60 percent of the fiber is exported.)
The United Nations’ International Labor Organization has designated June 12 as World Day Against Child Labor.
Unfortunately, child labor remains a serious problem in Central Asia, especially in the cotton sector. Uzbekistan is particularly notorious for forcing school-age kids into the cotton fields to help gather the crop.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has posted a photo essay highlighting the problem of child labor. It’s well worth a look, and serves as a reminder that there is a lot of work still to be done to make sure Central Asia’s kids don’t keep having their childhoods stolen.
Had she known that true stories are sometimes more terrifying than fiction, the little girl may not have pleaded for a bedtime tale.
But in this short film, father yields and tells his daughter of “a rich and powerful man” in a “country far, far away” who grows wealthy off slave labor. Of course, the father is talking about Uzbekistan, and that man is President Islam Karimov: “Schoolchildren have to get on buses and ride for hours to the cotton fields. […] They must pick cotton. All day long. The bag must be filled.”
Teachers, doctors, nurses and children are forced to pick the president’s cotton, the father says. It is a terrifying story, indeed: the thorny plants, the police cordon, schools closed while the children sleep in barns and tents through summer heat and autumn snow. It sounds like a concentration camp.
As her father shuts off the lights, the little girl realizes she is part of this global supply chain: “But the blanket ... and my pajamas … do they also …” – “Yes, they too may come from Uzbekistan. Well, good night,” he says, not so reassuringly.
The video – which ends with the uncomfortable truth, “You most likely sleep in Uzbek cotton” – was released this week by the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and the Inkota Network. An accompanying article shames Western companies for continuing to purchase Uzbek cotton, companies such as H&M, which “have enormous power to end modern-day slavery,” but don’t.
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".
It’s cotton-picking time in Uzbekistan. Each fall, hundreds of thousands of students (from grade school to university) are press-ganged into leaving the classroom and heading to the cotton fields. The government denies it, of course, but it’s basically state policy and has been well documented. Human rights activists have long drawn attention to the situation, urging clothing companies to boycott Uzbek cotton.
Radio Free Europe has an upsetting – though not particularly surprising – related story today. In Uzbekistan’s southern Shahrisabz district, it appears police may have beaten a teenager to death for not picking cotton. The full story:
An Uzbek official says several people have been detained over the death of a teenager who was allegedly beaten by police officers last week.
An official in Uzbekistan's southern Shahrisabz district told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on condition of anonymity on October 10 that a total of 24 people, including several police officers, have been questioned in connection to the case.
The official said some of them have been detained.
The official also said that authorities haven't yet received forensic examination results to establish the cause of the death of 18-year-old Navruz Islomov, who reportedly died of his injuries in hospital on October 6.
Local residents say police officers beat Islomov after he decided to leave early from the field where he was picking cotton because he was feeling unwell.
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.
Authorities in Uzbekistan don't like to discuss how they push schoolchildren, college students and teachers to toil in the country’s feudal cotton industry. But now that spring planting is underway, again a few brave activists are bringing us reports on both children and adults being dragged out of school and forced to work in the cotton fields, in dangerous conditions for no pay.
A two-page report by the Expert Working Group, one of the only independent NGOs left in Uzbekistan, provides the latest details, including testimonies. From the English version:
From the first days of May the Uzbek youth at secondary schools, lyceums and colleges in Bukhara, Samarkand, Jizzakh, Syrdarya, Khorezm regions and autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan were forced to attend spring cotton cultivation activities. This type of work usually includes weeding and hilling of the ground. It can be suggested that the same type of practice with forced spring labor is taking place in all other areas of the country. The minors from secondary schools involved in this type of forced spring labor are 13-16 years old (7-8-9th grades of school) and minors from lyceums and colleges are 16-18 years old.
From Monday to Friday the Uzbek youth involved in forced spring labor attend the local cotton fields from 13.00 afternoon till 18.00 evening. And on Saturdays and Sundays they attend the cotton fields from 09.00 of morning till 18.00 evening. Thus on Saturdays the classes for these groups of children are cancelled. The sources say the spring forced labor for the children would last until May 20-25.
The report likewise notes that “Uzbek authorities have never acknowledged the forced child labor problem and have avoided any public promise to eradicate it.”