Uzbekistan: Child Labour Continues Despite Formal Ban

Uzbekistan: Child Labour Continues Despite Formal Ban

Friday, 2 October, 2009
As children once again head out into the fields to pick cotton in Uzbekistan, farmers say they have little alternative but to take advantage of this cheap labour source. They argue that if the government allowed them to operate independently and stopped imposing crippling production quotas, child labour would become unnecessary.

Since mid-September, independent media and human rights activists have been reporting that children are once again being used to pick cotton.

“Schools are being set quotas for gathering cotton,” said a woman from the Fergana valley, one of the key areas for growing this key export crop. “When one headmaster was reluctant to send his pupils out to pick cotton, he was threatened with dismissal.”

Sources in Uzbekistan say that on September 22, Prime Minister Shafkat Mirzieyev met local government chiefs and security service heads from all regions of Uzbekistan and ordered the harvest to be organised as a “hashar” – a term that traditionally meant voluntary communal labour, but these days translates in practice into forced child labour.

Until 2008, child labour was widespread in Uzbekistan, and children as young as eight or nine years of age were forced to work in the cotton fields. As the government came under mounting pressure from the international community, culminating in a boycott by major United States and British textile importers and clothing retailers, the authorities announced in September 2008 that they were banning the use of child labour.

Last year, Uzbekistan ratified the International Labour Organisation Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour and the Convention on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and Work. (For a report on the declared ban, see Uzbek Child Labour Ban Hard to Enforce, 23-Sep-08.)

Earlier this year, IWPR reported that children were again being used as labour for the spring planting season. (See Uzbek Children Back in the Fields, 26-May-09.)

Some farmers say child labour could be eliminated if the authorities reformed the agricultural sector to give them the freedom to choose what and how much to grow. Currently, they are subject to Soviet-style production quotas. This year, the national target has been set at 3.5 million tons.

As one farmer in the Tashkent region pointed out, there is no shortage of adult labour; the problem is that with the low cotton purchase prices imposed by the state, it is difficult to find the money to hire seasonal workers.

“The country now has high unemployment, and the markets where people hire themselves out as labour are full of the unemployed,” said the farmer “The government could avoid child labour by getting these people out into the fields.”

Last year, the purchase price was set at 400 soms per kilogram of cotton (around 25 US cents) and this year the authorities have said they will pay 502 soms.

Farmers receive the money by bank transfer, but they find it difficult to get it out of their accounts because of restrictions on the size of withdrawals.

“If farmers were given more freedom and were able dispose of the money in their bank accounts freely, it would be possible to gather cotton without using child labour,” said a farmer in the Jizak region of central Uzbekistan. “Many people go to Kazakstan to pick cotton because the pay is better there.” (For a report on these migrants, see Uzbeks Caught Trying to Work in Kazakstan, 18-Sep-09.)

Farm workers in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan get 11 to 15 cents per kilo of cotton, whereas last year adults were paid 3.5 cents a kilo in Uzbekistan, and children 2.5 US cents.

Much of the harvest is gathered by hand, as the mechanical pickers of the late Soviet era have broken down and not been replaced.

“In the early Nineties, we had good cotton picking machines,” said a farmer in the Khorezm region of northwestern Uzbekistan. “In1991, for example, children were not forced to go out to the fields, as the cotton was picked by machines.”

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