Unwilling Cotton Harvesters in Uzbekistan

  • Human rights defender Yelena Urlaeva outside the chief prosecutor’s office in Tashkent, holding up a sign calling for an end to child labour on cotton plantations in Uzbekistan. (Photo: Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan)

Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is in full swing, and as in every other year the authorities are pressing students and public-sector workers into service as farm labour.

The Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan held a small demonstration in the capital Tashkent on October 9, demanding an end to the exploitation of minors. The group monitors the use of forced labour during the harvest.

There seems to be a change for the better this year – 15 to 18 year olds are still being sent out into the fields instead of much younger children.

“They used to bring in children of ten and over to work in the fields, but now they are between 15 and 18, mostly college and high school students,” the Alliance’s head Yelena Urlaeva said. “The authorities have raised the age, but the pattern of forced labour still applies.”

Under international pressure to end the use of child labour on a mass scale, and subject to a boycott of Uzbek cotton, the government has repeatedly denied the practice exists.

The Human Rights Alliance has identified high schools and colleges where students have been required to go and pick cotton.

“Many children fall ill, they are tired out by the hours of heavy labour, and they lack medical help, decent meals and accommodation,” a statement from Urlaeva’s group said.

The teenagers are set a quota of 60 kilograms of cotton a day. The government has monopoly control over cotton purchases from farmers, and this year it doubled the rate set for paying pickers to 200 soms (around eight US cents) per kilogram.

If a school pupil or student has the money, they can pay some needy adult to do their work for them, at roughly nine dollars a day.

As well as adolescents, adults in employment are dispatched to the fields. Employees of public-sector organisations have to go en masse, and private businesses are pressured into sending up to 15 per cent of their staff. The “mahallas”, the lowest tier of local government, are under instructions to send people who are receiving state benefits

A teacher in Syrdarya province in central Uzbekistan said all the staff at his school had to go and pick cotton. The school head offered one alternative – paying a fine of 400,000 soms, about 160 dollars, as a form of compensation for not working on the harvest.

“That’s more than a month’s wages for me, so I have to go and pick cotton,” the teacher said. “There’s no one in the school and no classes are running anyway.”

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing CentralAsia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.

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