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Children Back At Work In Turkmenistan's Cotton Fields

It is the peak of the cotton harvest in Turkmenistan and the fields of Lebap Province, bordering Uzbekistan, are filled with people doing back-breaking work.

Some of them are very young. Like this girl of about 10, who is standing with a sister half her age beside a mountain of cotton balls.

Asked how much cotton she picks, she says: "Every day I collect 27 to 31 kilograms of cotton." And for that, she says, they are paid about $.07 per kilogram.

She stops speaking, and for good reason. Under Turkmen law, the use of children in the cotton harvest is illegal. Yet she and dozens of other children are laboring away after being released from school early and being bused to this field by government officials.

Dark Secret

For the last several years students generally were not being taken to the fields in an organized way -- under teachers' supervision -- although they might have gone with the parents voluntarily.

But this year, as RFE/RL witnessed, they are being taken to the fields on a scale not seen in years -- in the company of teachers and, frequently, local officials.

What is not clear is why so many children are suddenly back picking cotton.

Many locals told RFE/RL it is because agricultural officials fear rains may come early and damage the quality of the cotton bolls, so children are being called in to help speed up the work.

But there is no way to confirm such speculation because officials themselves are saying nothing.

One reason for the silence is that any mention of drafting children for the cotton harvest is an extremely sensitive subject for Ashgabat.

Big Business

Turkmenistan is the ninth-largest cotton producer in the world, and its exports of raw cotton, cotton fabric, and finished clothes are its second-biggest money earner after natural gas and oil. But its leadership knows that if Western buyers associate child labor with Turkmen cotton, the country could suffer from consumer boycotts of the kind that target neighboring Uzbekistan.

Ashgabat has twice decreed in the past that children may not work in the cotton fields, and it earned international praise for doing so.

Former President Saparmurat Niyazov signed a decree banning child labor in February 2005, nearly two years before he died. The move was welcomed by the UN's agency for children, UNICEF, as guaranteeing the rights of Turkmen children to be free from economic exploitation.

His successor, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, repeated the move in 2008, forbidding forced labor of children and university students in the agricultural sector. The U.S. State Department in 2011 praised Turkmenistan for improving its child labor record and in 2012 said the Turkmen Justice Ministry was effectively enforcing the law.

But some human rights groups have questioned Turkmenistan's progress. The Human Rights Committee, a UN monitoring body comprising 18 independent experts, raised concerns over reports of children working in the cotton fields in its 2012 assessment of the country. That came as Human Rights Watch rated Turkmenistan's human rights record overall as "abysmal."

Long, Hard Days

The enlistment of children in the cotton harvest is part of a wider mobilization of labor that each year requires hundreds of thousands of adults -- including teachers, doctors, and civil servants -- to go into the cotton fields.

Local officials organize transportation for groups that assemble at meeting points as early as 7 a.m. and return after dark. Those who go are paid about $.07 for each kilo of cotton they harvest, with a 50-kilogram quota per picker. Those who want to opt out are required to find and pay a substitute to take their place.

For adults, refusing to go would mean losing one's job. For students, it would bring disciplinary action from school authorities.

"We're asked to go to the cotton fields every day to pick cotton, after school hours," a 10th-grade student in Lebap Province who did not want to give her name told RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. "If a student does not obey instructions, he or she is reprimanded."

Each year, the Turkmen government declares that it is buying more modern harvesting machines to mechanize the harvest, yet the bulk of the work is still done by hand.

ALSO READ: Aging Farm Machinery Hampers Central Asian Productivity

So far, there is little sign the annual mass mobilization will change. Berdymukhammedov on September 20 fired the country's top official for the cotton harvest, saying that the amounts being collected fell short of expectations.

Turkmenistan has sown an area of 550,000 hectares of cotton this year -- more than twice the size of Luxembourg. The annual harvest in recent years has run slightly over 1.1 million tons.

Written by Charles Recknagel based on reporting by RFE/RL Turkmen Service correspondent Osman Hallyev

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