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Seven Year Olds Pick Uzbek Cotton

Desperate to obey government orders, local officials are turning to young children to bring in the crop.
By Galima Bukharbaeva

Young schoolchildren bringing bags of cotton to school in Namangan

Children as young as seven have been ordered to Uzbekistan’s cotton fields as part of a last-ditch effort by local authorities to hit state production targets.


Farmers say there is no cotton left to harvest, but IWPR spoke to primary school students from the Pap district of Namangan region, in the Fergana Valley, who are spending their autumn holiday working in the cotton fields.


Some are only in the first year of school – seven years old. While it is standard practice for adolescents school pupils to be recruited for harvesting work, younger children appear to be being exploited more and more.


Each day they scavenge for between 1.5 and two kilograms of poor quality cotton, and local officials hope this will be enough to bring Namangan closer to its 270,000 tonne target. At the moment the region is still 12,000 tonnes short.


Official figure suggest 2004 has been a good year for Uzbek cotton, with nearly 99 per cent of the national target of 3.6 million tonnes gathered by November 9. Last year, the harvest was fell short of the same figure by at least 20 per cent.


Cotton is an important crop, and Uzbekistan is placed among the top five world producers. The country earns well over a billion US dollars a year, with annual exports of more than one million tonnes of cotton fibre accounting for about 45 per cent of the country’s total exports.


But while the government reaps substantial dollar revenues from the monopoly processing and export business, the industry is based on cheap labour provided by adults and children.


The practice of using child labour in the cotton industry dates back to Soviet times. Although children under 15 are forbidden by law from working, tens of thousands of pupils across the country gather cotton instead of attending classes throughout the harvest months.


Some schools have been closed since October, with students forced to spend their days picking the crop.


“We meet at school at 8 am, and then we go to the fields and gather cotton until 3 pm. We bring food from home,” said Rukiya Mamajanova, a fifth grade pupil from Namangan, who said she has been paid about 200 soms (20 US cents) for two months’ work.


At this late stage, many children are gathering whatever they can find, picking cotton that has failed to ripen or picking up wisps from the ground, often mixed with rubbish, and bringing it in to school where a teacher weighs it.


Muazzam Israilova, a second-grade pupil, talked to IWPR while walking to school, carrying one kilogram of cotton. “My brother gave me this cotton. He’s 12. If I don’t bring the cotton to school, my teacher will be angry,” said the eight-year-old girl.


Namangan residents say local politicians are desperate to meet state quotas at any cost, because failing to satisfy Tashkent-imposed targets could cost them their jobs.


“This cotton is absolutely useless,” said one teacher. “It cannot be processed and used. They just want to fulfil the plan with this rubbish. I feel sorry for the children.”


Mahfuza, a woman whose house is located near a school, has noticed that the children completing this year’s harvest are younger than ever before.


“School children were used in the past, but only from the senior classes, and now young children are being used. The holidays have begun for the children, but instead of having a holiday, they have to take cotton to school,” said Mahfuza.


A local government officer in Pap flatly denied that children are being used to gather cotton.


Headmaster Muminjon Salimov rejected claims that younger children from the second to fifth grades were being forced to work in the fields.


“Perhaps the children have gone into the fields voluntarily and are helping their parents, because the holidays have just begun,” said Salimov, when he was told that IWPR had actually spoken to the pupils.


Using children to pick cotton is just one tactic the Namangan authorities have devised to meet government quotas. Adults are also being targeted.


Twenty-nine-year-old Munovar Sultonova from the village of Sang told how she had a visit a few earlier from members of a local citizens’ group and a policeman, who ordered her family to collect hundreds of kilograms of cotton before the end of the “cotton campaign”.


“I explained that I couldn’t gather cotton because I’ve got a baby and two other young children, but they still forced me to sign a note saying I would commit myself to delivering 300 kilos of cotton,” said Sultonova.


She later discovered the delegation had visited every house in the village, extracting similar pledges from her neighbours.


But it is the employment of child labour that most concerns local people.


One teacher, smiling bitterly and pointing to the thin-soled shoes on her pupils’ feet, said, “Children are children, and they don’t think about how months in the cold fields will affect their health. It’s for us adults to think about that.”


Galima Bukharbaeva is IWPR’s project director in Uzbekistan.


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