In Uzbekistan, the second-largest cotton exporter in the world, it's an annual ritual. Come September, many schools are shut down for several months. Schoolchildren and their teachers are sent to the cotton fields to harvest what is dubbed "white gold."
For the child laborers, the conditions are often hard. "We stay in the building of a kindergarten or school. We sleep on a concrete floor. There are no windows," says a 12-year-old boy from the central Uzbek city of Bukhara. "We get a piece of bread and tea in the morning, some pasta for the dinner, and a thin soup for lunch."
But because as much as half of the country's "white gold" harvest is said to come from child labor, a group of rights activists is now urging the international community to boycott Uzbek cotton. And with one of every four garments in Europe containing cotton from Uzbekistan, activists say that the business brings huge profits only to the ruling elite.
On November 16, rights activists living inside and outside Uzbekistan sent an open letter to the European Union and the governments of the United States, Russia, and China, as well as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the World Bank, the UN's children agency (UNICEF), and the International Labor Organization.
According to the letter -- signed by 65 people and sent also to the International Cotton Advisory Committee, the Gdynia Cotton Association, and the Bremen Cotton Exchange -- cotton picking involves some 450,000 children and is the "result of a deliberate coercion policy adopted by the central government." It does not, they add, occur because of the poverty or illiteracy of the population, as in many other developing countries.
Thomas Grabka, a German photographer who has worked for "Der Spiegel" and "Stern," has spent time photographing cotton pickers in Uzbekistan.
"You always find cotton fields where children are working," Grabka says. "Maybe not in Tashkent -- I heard that children in Tashkent do not need to go to the fields -- but in the countryside, all these children between nine and 16-years old, they have to go to pick cotton. Even when I visited schools, they [were] all empty."
One schoolteacher from the western Khorazm region, who wished to remain anonymous, says this year has been harder than previous ones.
"The conditions with [work in the cotton fields] have never been as hard as this year. All the schoolchildren are in the cotton fields. Kindergartens are closed. The people who work there are all forced to pick cotton. It's never been as hard as this time," the schoolteacher said.
According to the rights activists' letter, Uzbek children work "at least eight hours a day" in cotton fields with no days off and "inhale dust saturated with the residues of chemicals, pesticides, and defoliants [that are] abundantly used in the cotton fields before the cotton harvest."
This year -- with Uzbekistan scheduled to hold a presidential election in December that Karimov is widely expected to win -- the authorities reported that the country exceeded its goal of 3.6 million tons for the cotton harvest.
In a televised speech on October 16, Karimov congratulated the Uzbek people on "a great victory" and said the harvest was the result of "selfless work" and "wide-ranging reforms being carried out in the country's agrarian sector."
Children picking cotton in Uzbekistan is nothing new -- and protests against the illegal use of child labor have been voiced in the past.
One of the signatories of the letter, exiled Uzbek dissident writer Yodgor Obid, remembers picking cotton in Soviet times.
"From the first grade of school to the seventh grade we were kicked out to the cotton fields. We picked cotton even in the winter, in December," Obid says.
This Soviet practice continued after Uzbekistan gained independence in 1991, despite the fact that the country has signed major international children's rights treaties (such as the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1999 Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention).
Cotton revenues are a major source of hard currency for Uzbekistan, but rights activists say the business is especially lucrative for Uzbekistan's ruling elite, in particular President Islam Karimov's family and his cronies.
The Uzbek government has reacted harshly in the past to criticism of its cotton-picking practices. After a BBC documentary on October 30 showed Uzbek children picking cotton for clothing sold in Britain, the Uzbek Embassy in London denied that child labor is used in Uzbekistan's agricultural sector.
The documentary showed how children were accompanied by a police escort, which cleared the road for buses and trucks loaded with mattresses to take the kids to cotton fields or back to the barracks.
The Uzbek Embassy's press service said children were only used as cotton pickers in Uzbekistan 15-20 years ago and added that the Soviet practice has ended and that current law "bans children's labor in cotton fields or other sectors of agriculture."
There are some indications that the government's stance on the issue seems to have hardened in recent years. Three years ago, photographer Grabka organized a rare exhibition in Tashkent that showed children working in cotton fields.
He says the Uzbek authorities were very "unhappy" about the exhibition, titled "The Cost of Uzbek White Gold," and that the secret police tried to close the exhibition down.
And the reaction of international cotton buyers could be crucial in forcing the Uzbek government's hand.
Activists believe a boycott will force the Uzbek government to stop using child labor and will provide farmers with real economic freedom.
Elke Hortmeyer, a press officer at the Bremen Cotton Exchange, confirmed to RFE/RL that they had received the Uzbek activists' letter and that the organization is considering the matter.
(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)
RFE/RL Central Asia Report
SUBSCRIBE For regular news and analysis on all five Central Asian countries by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Central Asia Report."