Uzbek cotton fields still using child labour

BBC News

By Rustam Qobil

Cotton is big business in Uzbekistan, and a vital source of hard currency in a country which is chronically underdeveloped and where many live below the poverty line.

But last year some Western clothes retailers threatened to boycott Uzbekistan - one of the world's leading cotton producers - if it did not stop using schoolchildren to pick this vital harvest.

As a result, the Uzbeks officially banned the use of child labour, but they now seem to have reneged on their promise, with children as young as 11 or 12 working in the fields.

"Everybody is out in the cotton fields, including schoolchildren," one woman told the BBC by phone - the BBC is not allowed to report on the ground in Uzbekistan.

The woman, who did not want to give her name, said the streets and markets in her area were almost empty because everyone was in the fields.

According to other residents, streets are festooned with slogans dating back to the Soviet era calling on everyone to help with the harvest. Government activists with loudspeakers are driving around reminding people to do their bit.

It appears that many children have little choice but to heed these calls.

"My daughter is anaemic and has been taken to a cotton-growing area far away with her college. I couldn't do anything," one mother from a rural area in central Uzbekistan said.

"I myself am disabled and my husband works in Russia. I can't visit her and don't know how she is now."

"Fourteen- and 15-year-old school pupils have been taken to the cotton fields," added Bakhtiyar Hamrayev, a human rights activist, describing the situation in the central Jizzakh region.

"In rural areas, children as young as 11 or 12 have been forced to leave their classrooms and help to pick cotton in nearby farms."

There is immense pressure on families to ensure their children take part in the harvest, and most people are afraid to resist.

Schools and colleges are also under pressure to support the harvest, and Bakhtiyar Hamrayev says this sometimes leads to them taking tough measures against children whose parents try to keep them at home.

"In one recent example, a boy fell ill and went to see the doctor," he said. "By the time he brought back the doctor's certificate, his teachers had informed the parents he'd been expelled."

Dire conditions

Campaigners are also very concerned about living standards for children who work in the fields.

"There is no central heating, no showers and no clean drinking water," one activist said. "Children bring their own mattresses because there are no beds at all."

Bakhtiyar Hamrayev, who has visited several cotton growing areas in the Jizzakh region, says that children are exposed to considerable health risks.

"In many cases they drink and wash in the irrigation channels of nearby cotton fields.

"Breakfast consists of tea and bread. Lunch is almost the same while dinner is made from low quality macaroni or rice soup. They rarely see any meat."

Despite this, children have to pay for the food. The state is paying about 80 soms per kilogramme of cotton picked, the equivalent of 4 US cents.

That money barely covers the price of the food the children consume, and some end up owing money instead of earning it.

New markets

Some Western companies are already boycotting Uzbek cotton, but the government has found other customers.

Recently Uzbekistan signed big contracts to sell cotton fibre to countries like China, Russia and Iran.

Campaigners say exports to China in particular make it hard for Western retailers and consumers to track where the cotton in products they buy actually comes from.

Many Uzbek farmers do not want to use child labour, but they are powerless to negotiate the price paid by the state and the extremely low wages on offer put adults off picking cotton.

"The government forces us to produce cotton while we want to plant fruits or vegetables," one Uzbek farmer said.

"And again it's the government who decides the price for our cotton and who decides who will pick the cotton."

The BBC Uzbek Service asked government officials, including the Ministry of Education, to comment on allegations that Uzbekistan is still using child labour, but the authorities have declined to comment.

In the meantime, it seems that thousands of children are once again being forced to spend valuable school time toiling away in Uzbekistan's cotton fields until the end of the harvest in December.