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Labor Violations Remain Rife In Uzbek Cotton Fields

  • Farangis Najibullah

An Uzbek child collects cotton

An Uzbek child collects cotton

Their workday starts at 6 a.m. sharp. After a hurried breakfast of bread, tea, and sugar, they rush to the cotton fields.

There small armies of laborers will pick "white gold" until sunset, in what has become an annual ritual to bring in one of Central Asia's most valuable agricultural resources.

Nothing comes easy during harvest season. Cotton pickers work 10 to 11 hours each day, seven days a week, for a pittance -- as low as three U.S. cents per kilogram of cotton. Their nights are spent in places with no running water, no electricity, and lacking the most basic hygienic standards.

Most shocking is the workforce itself -- conscripted high school and university students who face the threat of expulsion should they not go along with the program. And many are younger still.

"Children are being exploited in the fields. This is a reality," says Yelena Urlaeva, head of the Uzbek Human Rights Alliance. "For instance, in Namangan Province, children starting the sixth to ninth grades work [in the fields]."

Urlaeva tells RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that in some provinces in the country children as young as 12 are toiling in the fields.

And her claims come even as the Uzbek authorities tout legislation adopted in September that effectively acknowledges the practice, and which was designed to stop it.

Cotton Heavyweights

Uzbekistan is Central Asia's cotton heavyweight, and a major global player in the industry. Exports are their major source of hard-currency export earnings, and one-third of their respective workforces are tied to the cotton trade.

Millions of people are needed every year to ensure the harvest comes in, but more lucrative seasonal work in Russia, Kazakhstan, and other countries drains the labor pool.

Schoolchildren and students taking part in a cotton harvest in Tajikistan. (file photo)
As a result, alternatives are needed -- and that's where children and high school and university students enter the equation.

In recent months a number of Western retailers, including Tesco, Gap, Debenhams, and Marks & Spencer have boycotted Uzbek cotton.

In August, four of the largest U.S. and U.K. trade and retail associations followed up by demanding that Uzbekistan halt the use of forced child labor.

In a welcome step, Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyayev signed a decree in September implementing the International Labor Organization's new conventions banning child labor. A national plan of action was introduced to implement the new law and a special body set up to look for any violations of the ban.

Despite the measures, however, the world's largest retailer recently joined the boycott. Wal-Mart Stores announced this month that it has instructed its suppliers to stop buying cotton from Uzbekistan until it can verify that the use of forced child labor has ended.

'In Order To Effect Change'

Richard Coyle, Wal-Mart's senior director of international corporate affairs, told RFE/RL that the company is actively engaged in talks with the Uzbek government on the issue.

"Wal-Mart has instructed its supply base to remove Uzbek cotton," Coyle said. "We're doing this in order to effect change in Uzbekistan, where there are significant amounts of children forced to work in the cotton fields to harvest the cotton."

Fellow Central Asian cotton producers Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan halted the use of child labor in the 1990s, while Turkmenistan adopted a law banning the practice in 2005.

With Uzbekistan's formalization of legislation that had sat unimplemented for months, it joined the growing regional club. But similar labor laws remain only on the books in neighboring Tajikistan, the region's No. 3 cotton producer, and other means of labor exploitation remain commonplace in both countries.

Uzbekistan, as it implements its new legislation, has lowered its legal minimum working age to 16, enabling schools to send elder students to the fields.

'Of Their Own Accord'

In Tajikistan, authorities have stopped the practice of closing schools for months at a time while students help out cotton farmers. Instead, schoolchildren spend half days on weekdays and from Friday through Sunday on farms on what are called "long weekends."

Of course, measures would be taken against students who don't go to cotton fields. They will be punished during exams and tests.
And throughout the cotton-harvest season spanning early September to late November, classes have been canceled in many universities and colleges.

Olimjon Zoidov, an official from the regional Committee for Youth Affairs in Tajikistan's northern Sughd region, said the practice allows willing volunteers to participate in the harvest.

"Students who go to harvest cotton know that cotton is Tajik nation's wealth," Zoidov says. "The students go to cotton farms of their own accord. No one, including no one from the university administration, has forced them to go. They have gone to the fields voluntarily."

But the students themselves say the choice is not up to them.

Zafar, a Khujand University student, tells RFE/RL's Tajik Service that "students are literally threatened by university authorities to go to cotton farms -- we face expulsion if we refuse."

"Of course, measures would be taken against students who don't go to cotton fields. They will be punished during exams and tests," Zafar says. "Professors don't openly tell the students that they would be expelled, but they don't let the students pass exams and it certainly results in expulsion."

And the evidence appears to back up his story. According to the Amparo law firm, 56 students were reportedly expelled from universities last year in the town of Khujand alone for refusing to take part in the cotton harvest campaign.

RFE/RL Washington correspondent Heather Maher contributed to this report.
RFE/RL Central Asia Report


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