DUSHANBE -- Tajikistan says a prohibition by President Emomali Rahmon on the use of child labor to pick cotton remains in force, but Tajik cotton has still been blacklisted by the United States, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reports.
Tajik Labor Minister Mahmadamin Mahmadaminov told RFE/RL on July 20 that his ministry is against child labor and that the Education Ministry last year banned schools from sending children to pick cotton.
Mahmadaminov made his comments after the U.S. Labor Department's decision on July 19 to include cotton from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the list of commodities produced using indentured or child labor.
Damian Wampler, a spokeman for the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, said that "there were credible reports that some officials in the Sughd and Khatlon oblasts used threats and coercion to force children to work in the cotton fields during the 2009 harvest."
Cotton is cash-strapped Tajikistan's second-largest export product after aluminum. During the last years of the Soviet era, Tajikistan produced up to 1 million tons of cotton annually.
But in the last two decades the cotton industry has been in a deep crisis and Tajikistan currently produces only one-third of the top levels in the Soviet Union.
Manzura Sultonova, a human rights activist from Tajikistan's northern Sughd Province, confirms that officially the use of child labor in the cotton industry is prohibited.
She says that although schools are no longer closed during the cotton-picking campaign, as was the case in the Soviet Union and remains the case in neighboring Uzbekistan, teachers still send children to "help farmers" during the harvest under pressure from local authorities.
The extent to which the U.S. decision will actually affect Tajikistan's cotton industry is questionable.
Vahhob Vohidov, who served as an agriculture minister during the Soviet era, said Tajikistan had never exported cotton to the United States. He said the main purchasers of Tajik cotton were European countries, Russia, Iran, and Uzbekistan.
But Shodi Shabdolov, a Communist Party deputy in the lower house of the Tajik parliament, said that although the U.S. administration's decision to blacklist Tajik cotton was politically motivated, it should nevertheless have a positive effect.