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Uzbek Children Forced to Collect Scrap Metal

By News Briefing Central Asia

Human rights defenders in Uzbekistan are concerned at a new government campaign to get schoolchildren to collect scrap metal, saying it breaches national legislation that bans minors from working. 

The campaign, launched in March, is taking place across the country, the only exemption being for schools in the capital Tashkent, according to Surat Ikramov, head of the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders.

A school head in Angren, an industrial town about 110 kilometres from Tashkent, said instructions had been issued for every pupil to gather 15 kilograms of metal. Those who cannot deliver the full amount have to pay 2,500 soms instead, about one US dollar.

She said the school was struggling to deliver the quota it had been set, because there was not much scrap metal around and many families could not afford the alternative “fine”. In some cases, children were bringing in utensils from home to make up the weight. It was uncomfortable for the teaching staff to keep having to pressure the pupils, she added.

The school head said she believed the campaign stemmed from a decree issued by President Islam Karimov in December designed to increase ferrous metals production, including through recycling.

12-year-old Ubaidullo from Chirchik, near Tashkent, said he had missed school for last two weeks as he had been spending every morning going to the outskirts of town to hunt for metal objects. He could not find anything to bring from home, and with a family of six children, his parents could not give him the money, either.

Farhod, who lives in a village in Tashkent region, burst into tears as he described how he was turned away from lessons.

“They told me not to come to school without it. But I want to go to classes, not look for tin cans on rubbish tips,” he said.

A history teacher from the Syrdarya region of central Uzbekistan, said her school was collecting scrap for the Bekabad metals plant, the biggest steel producer in Uzbekistan.

Officials acknowledge that the Bekabad plant is short of metal. A spokesman for the plant, Mirzomurod Baimurodov, confirmed that Karimov had instructed government ministries and agencies to find scrap metal, but he denied schools had been enlisted for the task.

An education ministry official who asked to remain anonymous said that if pupils were being asked to gather scrap, it was an initiative that schools themselves had come up with.

Rights activists say the campaign breaches a nationwide ban on child labour.

Yelena Urlaeva, head of the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, says the practice amounts to forced labour, even if it is presented as a voluntary effort.

Last year, Urlaeva’s group conducted an investigation which found that minors were still being used to pick cotton – the sector in which child labour is most notorious in Uzbekistan. She believes the December decree has resulted in more children working

Using child labour is banned by the constitution, and legislative changes passed in 2009 introduced harsher penalties for those who persist in doing so.

Rights activists say demanding money in place of undelivered scrap is a form of extortion.

“Most parents are forced to pay up,” Ikramov said. “Schoolchildren aren’t able to deliver 15 kilograms of metal on their own. Where are they supposed to get it?”

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

 

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