Uzbekistan is the only country in the world where the government shuts educational institutions for 2-3 months and send students and school children to pick cotton. The cotton industry of Uzbekistan is built on forced labour, and the most convenient objects of forced cotton harvest are schools. During cotton season, you can see propaganda posters accross the country, which say “Хамма пахтага” (“Everybody goes to pick cotton”). The central government sends this “national call” first to the school teachers, and teachers either comply or face penalties, including dismissal.
According to current official data, 40% of the population of Uzbekistan are children (under age 15), and 64% are youth under age 30. Nevertheless, in the country where there are millions of unemployed (official statistics state 5% unemployment rate, and independent observers estimate 35-40% unemployment), children and students are still the main populations who are forced to work the cotton harvest.
The government of Uzbekistan policy holds Uzbek teachers hostage. They carry the burden of responsibility to organise children to go to the fields. Teachers have to supervise children during harvest season, they have to go from house to house and persuade parents to acquiesce to their children working in the cotton fields.
Teachers also have to lie about the school closures and denial of education to the children, by ensuring that there is no written evidence that school was interrupted. During the Autumn harvest children do not attend school for 2-3 months, and teachers are required to record full and regular attendance in the registration books in order to make it look that the classes are taking place.
Every year thousands of students in Uzbekistan graduate pedagogical universities and receive diplomas in education; however, most of the graduates do not wish to pursue career in their field of education.
In May 2012, 22-year-old Jasur finished an education degree with a concentration in math and says that he is not planning to work as a teacher. He knows that despite his intentions to teach and higher education, if he pursues teaching in Uzbekistan, the government will force him to spend several months in cotton fileds forcing children to pick cotton instead of teaching them math. At the moment, Jasur is preparing to leave for Russia to work, becuase he does not wish to become a free helper of the government. Unfortunately, pursuing his dream of teaching may not be eased by migrating. Thousands of teachers with higher education diplomas do the dirty and dangerous jobs in Russia: street cleaning, porters and construction among others.
In Uzbekistan, teachers are forced to perform several uncompensated jobs for the government. Each Autumn cotton harvest season, the government gives teachers the ‘very special mission’ to organise schoolchildren to pick cotton. Uzbek teachers even spend “Teachers’ Day” in the cotton fields. In addition to the cotton harvest, the government coerces teachers into cleaning allocated streetswith their students, including the dangerous work of recollecting scrap metal. The government also requires teachers to distribute leaflets during electoral campaigns and to work on the teams of electoral comissions in their constitutencies.
The system of school involvement is very simple. As described by a teacher from the Kashkadarya region, “the director of the school called a meeting and said that he attended a selective meeting of the Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev, at which the prime minister announced the start of the universal cotton harvest season. After that meeting the mayor of the Jizzak region announced the news to school directors that from the 11th of September 7-9 grade children will start going to pick cotton and stop attending school during this period”.
School directors threaten teachers with dismissal as penalty for any disclosure of the facts of such child exploitation.
In January of 2012 a teacher of secondary school Ziyodulla Razzakov was dismissed after he spoke to the Radio Liberty about how children are taken to pick cotton and the working conditions for them. “Schoolchildren are taken to the cotton fields in open trucks like sacks of potato, and for this transportation they even charge children 400 soms everyday” said Mr. Razzakov.
Every school is allocated with daily targets of cotton that the school has to meet. The target is established by regional authorities and it depends on the quantity of children, teachers and other technical staff of the school. For school directors fulfilling the cotton quotas is more important than the quality of education provided to the children. If the quotas are not completely met, the director can be dismissed from his position and lose needed income.
“Teachers behave like soldiers, silently carry out the order. If they refuse to work in the field, they can cut their salary and fire them in the first opportunity” said a teacher from Tashkent region school.
School teachers have a reason to be afraid.
Considering that educated professionals have an incentive to migrate to Russia or elsewhere, many schools in Uzbekistan lack qualified and experienced teachers. Therefore, school authorities have to hire the young and inexperienced graduates of colleges and lyceums, who are more easily intimidated. Any signs of dissent by a teacher will lead to the formal review process “attestation of professional qualification” and, in many cases, results in dismissal.
As for qualified teachers with diploma and work experience, they are painfully aware of the price they pay. A teacher in primary school Marhamat who has 20 years of experience demurred, “I didn’t finish university and receive a higher education diploma just to work in the field as a labourer.” To avoid the field work, she has to hire and pay for a labourer who will work in her place in the field.
Government-forced field work extends beyond the cotton harvest. Each Spring, teachers endure another government-imposed headache. The teachers are forced to organize their schoolchildren to weed and prepare the cotton fields, typically during March and April. In 2012 in the Tashkent region, this springtime child labor in the cotton fields continued for almost three months. Until 5th June, teachers and their schoolchildren tended to the cotton fields. While picking cotton is paid - the weeding and field preparation is absolutely unpaid, free labour.
According to the school teacher Marhamat, concerned citizens all over the world need to demand the end of exploitation of children and adults. Forced child labour must stop, and involving teachers in cotton harvest and weeding must stop. The future of Uzbekistan is at stake; if teachers are going to fields in the spring and the autumn, children do not receive a quality education.
Soon September is upon us again, and it means that Uzbek teachers and their students will be forced to work the cotton harvest. And again on “Teachers’ Day” they will be in the fields working, hoping that the international community will use its leverage to demand that the Uzbek government end this practice, and awaiting the day when the situation will indeed improve.
“The bloodiest massacre of protesters since Tianamen Square turned Uzbekistan into a pariah state…”
“Uzbekistan has been run with unflinching severity by 74-year-old former Soviet party boss Islam Karimov since before the country gained independence in 1991...”
“…government troops indiscriminately gunned down hundreds of protesters in the eastern city of Andijan in 2005.”
“With access to the country barred to almost all foreign reporters, verifying claims by some State Department officials that the rights situation has improved marginally is virtually impossible.”
“…investments enthusiastically backed by Washington are trickling in.”
Yes, the last quote describes the same government of Uzbekistan accurately characterized as a gross violator of human rights in the first four quotes of Peter Leonard’s article for the Associated Press, “US cozies up to outcast Uzbekistan as it seeks regional support for Afghanistan withdrawal.”
The apparel industry is often the first investor in particularly high-risk locations and has already signaled its interest in Uzbekistan, due to its production of cotton. Before considering Uzbekistan as the next frontier in low-cost apparel production, companies ought to take note that they risk their brand when they turn a blind eye to human rights violations. Conducting business with Uzbek cotton directly supports the government of Uzbekistan and therefore means complicity in violating the rights of Uzbek citizens. As described by former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, “You have to look on cotton, not only as the means by which the Uzbek state funds itself, in very large degree, but as a means of social control.”
Every year the government of Uzbekistan forcibly mobilizes over a million children, teachers, public servants and employees of private businesses for the manual harvesting of cotton. The Uzbek government requires farmers to grow cotton, and local provincial government offices (khokimiyats) forcibly mobilize adults and children to harvest cotton and meet assigned quotas. Children as young as 10 years old are also forced to weed and prepare cotton fields in the springtime. The practice drives farmers into poverty, some to suicide. In April, the middle-aged cotton farmer Komil Kambarov committed suicide, out of frustration after 12 years of fulfilling the cotton quota demanded by the Uzbek government and solely for the government’s benefit.
The breadth of the stifling control of the Uzbek government - “the world’s largest family-owned business” as characterized by Scott Horton of Harper’s Magazine – extends throughout the economy. Government employees, teachers, factory workers and doctors are also commonly forced to participate in the harvest alongside children, with no additional compensation and under threat of punishment. During the 2011 harvest, employees of the General Motors plant in Andijan were forced to pick cotton.
Investing in Uzbekistan also means high risk of the investors losing their proverbial shirts, or trading them in for prison garb. In 2011, British mining company Oxus Gold closed Uzbek operations in 2011, citing an “ongoing campaign by the Uzbek government to steal the last foreign assets in the mining industry,” and an Oxus employee remains in prison on vague allegations. The global giant in the textile industry Spentex Industries Ltd. was forced into bankruptcy and has recently initiated a lawsuit against the Uzbek government to recover its losses.
Companies looking to invest in Uzbekistan should consider that doing so risks supporting a government that massacred innocent protesters, annually forces children and adults to harvest cotton to fill the state’s coffers, and silences citizens who attempt freedom of speech, and losing their business.
As so aptly put by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton today, “It’s true that clamping down on political expression or maintaining a tight grip on what people read, say or see can create an illusion of security. But illusions fade — because people’s yearning for liberty don’t.” In the interest of security and economic development in Uzbekistan, the US would do well to heed the Secretary’s observation and condition support for the government of Uzbekistan on improved human rights, beginning with ending its system of forced labor in the cotton sector.
Young students of Garston asked a national forum at Oxford University, “Can you feel the sadness in your clothes?” on June 26. The students’ participated in workshops by Anti-Slavery International last year and since developed their own “Cut Cotton Crimes” campaign. The students’ informed and outraged presentation highlighted the problem of international complicity in the government of Uzbekistan’s system of forced labor of adults and children in its cotton sector.
Read about the students’ presentation here.
As the students suggest, cotton made by Uzbek people in conditions of slavery should arouse sadness and lead to action. In their presentation, the students sent a critically important message to governments and companies throughout apparel supply chains. The continuing and systematic use of forced labor in the Uzbek government’s cotton production system will end when governments and businesses listen to the next generation and take action to end the violation of the rights of Uzbek citizens. Young people are right to be outraged and to call on the leaders of governments and businesses to use their leverage with the government of Uzbekistan to end forced labor in the cotton sector.
The call from the students of Garston is timely. Urgent action is required from governments and companies to directly inform the Uzbek government that continued business, political and economic relations depend on ending forced labor in the cotton sector. As a very first step, all governments and businesses should immediately call on the Uzbek government to invite the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to conduct unfettered monitoring of the 2012 cotton harvest.