Not long after teachers were forced to go to the cotton fields in Uzbekistan to help bring in the harvest, their pupils from middle schools followed them.
The BBC Uzbek Service has received reports that children in the 6th grade who are 12 years of age have been forced to work in large numbers in the harvest.
As we know from Uzbek monitors, children as young as 10 have been reported in the fields in past harvest, and the tendency has been to bring younger children out as the harvest progresses; adults and university students are sent for the more lucrative and larger-yield work at the beginning of the harvest.
Parents of students and education workers themselves have been pressured by local officials who have demanded that the children be taken out to the fields.
A housewife from Yangiyul whose husband was sentenced to prison for his religious beliefs told the BBC that due to the lack of a bread-winner in the house, she was forced to pay to have her son, who is a college student , remain at home.
The woman who requested anonymity said she paid 70,000 soums (about $30) to hire a person who would pick cotton in her son’s place. But the college official reneged on the agreement, saying that he would keep the $30 for the cost of her son’s food, and make her son go to the cotton harvest nonetheless. The woman said since she had brought her son home at the start of the harvest, there shouldn’t have been any amount owed for his food.
Another resident of Yanguil, Komila Halimova, and her daughter, a 9th grader named Furkat, began working on September 14 in the fields and had been working for five days at the time of the interview for BBC. They get to the fields on foot at 8:00 in the morning and return home at sundown. Furkat suffered from a skin infection and was supposed to avoid exposure to the sun and dust, but all her mother’s efforts to get her exempted from the cotton harvest were in vain. Doctor’s excuses either don’t help, or were good for only two or three days, after which the teachers come to the house and demanded that the students come to the fields.
On September 14, a funeral was held for a farmer from Murzrabot district in the Surkhandarya region, who committed suicide, the Uzbek Service of the BBC reported.
According to accounts from other farmers and villagers, Ismail Turanazarov, age 50, had been reprimanded at a meeting in Murzrabot about the cotton harvest by the head of Surkhandarya region for failing to meet the daily state quota. Turanazarov was even arrested for 24 hours, which then served as the motivation for his desperate act. Although officials in Surkhandarya deny this account, human rights activists are saying that the pressures and harsh treatment of farmers unable to meet their quotas can be seen throughout Uzbekistan.
Farmers from Murzrabot describe the meeting on the cotton harvest that took place on September 12 with Turobjon Zhurayev, head of the Surkhandarya region. Zhurayev asked farmers who had not fulfilled their quotas to stand and then began berating them. After the meeting, the official ordered Turanazarov, another resident, Ziyodulla Kuldasheva, and three other farmers put in jail. After being held in the isolation cell for a day, Turanazarov returned home and wrote a suicide note and then killed himself. In his note, he blamed local authorities for the fact that he could not meet the quota, and said that as a farmer, he had not received timely financial support and fuel and that when he had appealed to the authorities for help with his problem, he still received nothing.
A criminal investigation has been opened into Turanazarov's death. Uzbek human rights activists have commented on the extreme sensitivity of the farmer’s case, and have surmised that an official conclusion about his death will most likely not be publicized, and that likely no mention will be made that the government’s cotton policey was at fault. No mention will be made of the fact that farmers in Uzbekistan are not free to chose what to grow, or that the quotas for grain and cotton are the reason for many troubles in previous years. In 1996, a woman farmer from Jizzak who had her crops confiscated even after fulfilling the state grain quota threw herself under a combine.
Both local and foreign observers have noted that the chief problem for farmers is their treatment by state agencies. Although the government claims to protect farmers, in fact, officials create difficulties for sowing and harvesting, causing many to give up farming. The inability to get fuel in a timely manner, and even the inability to withdraw cash from their own bank accounts are some of the difficulties farmers face. Despite internationall criticism, Uzbekistan continues to offer a rather low wholesale price for cotton and grain; this year, when a kilogram of grain was valued at 2000 soums (about US $1.50), farmers were paid only several hundred soums by the state (about 10 cents).
Uzbekistan has opened its seventh International Cotton and Textile Fair in Tashkent with some 330 companies from 38 countries sending representatives, even as others boycott the event, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported.
The event's website said that the "primary goal of such an endeavor is to further expand long-term cooperation with international organizations and foreign companies."
It said delegates at the fair would be able to examine "more than 800 varieties of Uzbek cotton fibers."
But many international companies are staying away from the fair. More than 60 companies worldwide have announced a boycott of Uzbek cotton, which rights groups say is often picked by children in violation of child-labor laws.
There are also many reports of secondary and university students along with some professionals being "volunteered" to harvest cotton instead of attending school or working.
The campaign against purchasing Uzbek cotton has seen increased support among Western companies in recent years with well-known brands such as Burberry, Levi's, H&M, and others publicly vowing to avoid knowingly buy it.
Other companies, however, have not been deterred from placing orders for Uzbekistan's "white gold."
Russian-based companies reportedly buy some 40 percent of Uzbekistan's cotton with companies from China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, South Korea, and the United Arab Emirates placing orders for the bulk of the remaining 60 percent.
Uzbekistan's sales of cotton from the 2010 cotton fair amounted to some $500 million.
The cotton fair ends on October 13.
Copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
Authorities have begun to mobilize school-children in Andijan province for the cotton harvest, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights reports.
Starting October 6, children from Uzbekistan's most densely-populated province of Andijan were taken to pick cotton. Earlier, local administrators (the khokimiyat) had stated that this year, they would not force middle-school children to take part in the harvest.
But once again, the children were brought to the fields of farmers who in the past year could not manage to meet the state quota for cotton deliveries.
Children from grades 7 through 9 in the middle school (from ages 12 to 16) are now working in the fields. They are being paid 120 soums per kilogram of cotton, i.e. the equivalent of 5 cents per kilo.
Under instructions from the khokim, or local administrator, farmers who have school-children working in their fields must provide them with one hot meal a day (lunch) and clean drinking water.
But not all the farmers have the capacity to build temporary housing for the cotton-pickers, or to prepare them hot food, or to put a samovar on to boil in the fields.
Most of the children are bringing food from home, and are putting down old newspapers by the side of the road to sit on and have their lunch.
In the local press in Andijan, there was a notice that as of October 1st, Andijan province had submitted 71 percent of its quota to the government. There is a lot of cotton left unpicked in the fields. Adults are able to pick about 100-120 kg per day. They are paid 150 soums per kilogram of cotton (more than 5 cents per kg).
According to the state media, President Islam Karimov visited Andijan province from September 30-October 1, and it was reported that he went to inspect the cotton fields. Special fields were prepared for his visit, which had been sprayed with defoliants not long before that and no cotton-pickers were allowed in the area. But the field was left filled with snowy-white cotton bolls to show to the leader.
According to the available information, the harvest is expected to be completed before early November, that is, local people are hoping to gather in the whole crop before the onset of rains.
European Union parliamentarians have rejected a trade deal that would have eased Uzbekistan's export of textiles to Europe, citing the use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry, Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe reported.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament voted unanimously against the inclusion of textiles in the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), the pact that has governed EU-Uzbek trade since 1999. The vote prevented a lowering of tariffs on EU imports of Uzbek cotton, which make up at least 25 percent of Uzbekistan's exports.
The language of the legislation now stipulates that the inclusion of textiles "should only be put to the vote by Parliament after international observers, and in particular the International Labor Organization (ILO), have been granted by the Uzbek authorities close and unhindered monitoring."
The Uzbek government has failed to invite the ILO to inspect cotton fields during the harvest season, despite calls from employers and unions at the ILO annual meeting as well as from the International Labor Rights Forum and other groups.
In February, the European Council approved an amendment to the PCA, extending the customs and tariffs breaks to Tashkent. But the European Parliament had yet to approve it, and it still had to go through committees.
EU members of parliament became concerned about increasing reports of the exploitation of children in the cotton harvest. A coalition of international labor and human rights organizations, joined with Uzbek human rights groups working both inside the country and in exile, have been advocating for some years with MEPs to try to stop forced child labor, especially after Uzbekistan ratified the ILO convention against the worst forms of child labor in 2009.
In June, the EU Parliament held a hearing on the issue and heard testimony from Anti-Slavery International, and other NGOs campaigning against forced labor.
Joanna Ewart-James, Supply Chain Program Coordinator at Anti-Slavery International testified:
Ninety percent of Uzbek cotton is picked by hand, with almost half being picked by state-sponsored forced child labor. Uzbekistan is not a country with which we should be doing business and clearly not with the cotton and related sectors.
Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, a French MEP, asked on her blog why the agreement should be signed, when Tashkent wouldn't allow the ILO to monitor the cotton harvest. Liam Aylward, an Irish MEP also issued a press release on the issue, and Catherine Bearder and Leonidas Donskis, MEPs from England and Lithuania respectively, lodged queries with the European Commission.
The European Parliament's International Trade Committee must next vote on the measure on November 22, and the PCA is expected to come to a plenary vote in December.
On October 3, MEP Paul Murphy, a member of the Socialist Party/United Left Alliance from Ireland, member of the Europarliament's International Trade Committee, organized a panel on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Nadejda Atayeva of the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, who regularly monitors forced labor in Uzbekistan, was invited to testify. A number of MEPs pledged their support for blocking Uzbek textile imports, including Hannes Swoboda, vice president of the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, Foreign Affairs Committee member and member of EU-Uzbekistan Parliamentary Cooperation Committee and Norica Nicolai of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, who is vice chair of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence, and also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Uzbekistan has generally denied that it uses young children in the harvest, although monitors this season have found children as young as 10 in the 4th and 5th grades sent to work in the fields.
ILO signatories can allow children 15 years or older to work after school, and children of 14 years under certain conditions. But unlikely other countries where agricultural work occurs in a family farm context, in Uzbekistan, local administrators remove students from middle school through college from classes, and then bus them to the cotton fields under threat of penalties for themselves and their families. In the state-controlled agricultural sector, even nominally private farmers must meet quotas and accept fixed prices for their produce.
UNICEF has been permitted by the Uzbek government to make some limited observation of the cotton harvest, but has cautioned that this is not a substitute for the kind of thorough monitoring that the ILO could do of labor practices.
This story first appeared on EurasiaNet's Choihona blog.
A monitor working with the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights sent an account of his recent drive across Uzbekistan through the provinces, risking arrest to take pictures of school-children working in the cotton fields. He describes the empty marketplaces, with everyone sent off to the cotton fields, the dusty, bumpy roads, the children laboring in the harvest, and the drought this year, making the pickings scant. This account is translated from Russian.
Uzbek Cotton Harvest Monitor's Route, September 2011. Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights
I spent a few days rolling through the fields of Tashkent province, thanks to my mother wit, I was able to snap a few shots... We asked around where the colleges and schools were, where kids were picking cotton in the region. And I would then go to the field next to the one where I had heard a certain school was working (but not that exact one), and then, as if I had lost my way, depending on the situation, I would shoot some pictures of cotton fields -- and catch the children alongside them.
I bought myself some local clothes and shoes so I would not stand out too much from the local population (and how do they manage to go about only in these clothes?). In Tashkent, people often mistake me for a foreigner. Whenever I go to the Chor-su bazaar, I can't take a step without the black marketeers offering to change my currency, they think I'm a foreigner.
"Mister, change dollars."
On the other hand, looking like a foreigner can be a plus, as the police don't stop you -- there was some law passed a few years ago about encouraging tourism. That's my usual style of clothing and I don't plan to change it.
We set off from the train station for Bukhara on Friday evening about 8:00 pm, riding in a Nexia, preferring to avoid trains and planes so that our trail would not be so easy to follow. It was also faster to go by car and we could leave any time we wanted.
The driver who delivered the Nexia to us had brought some passengers with him to justify the gasoline expense. About 3:00 am, we were dropped off in Bukahra, and took a taxi to the rail station. The station was locked and inside two policemen were asleep. We spent the rest of the night in the station, leaving our things at the baggage storage, and headed off to the central bazaar, where we were going to catch a marshrutka, or jitney, to the nearest field. We looked around and saw a large number of school children going to pick cotton.
I noticed that in Bukhara, even the youngest school children were being taken off to the cotton fields. I took a few photographs, but didn't want to risk more, and after looking around, headed back to the city of Bukhara.
I kept to this tactic: relying on my intuition, if I saw a lot of teachers in the field, I didn't risk going to take photos. "Two heads are better than one." I wouldn't stay in a field more than 3 to 5 minutes, otherwise the teachers would start asking what I was doing. I had a cell phone in my pocket, turned to photo or video mode. Inside my knapsack was also a large reflective camera. I would select the equipment depending on the situation. Usually one of us would distract people, while the other took pictures.
We pretended to be tourists from Tashkent who were visiting relatives, or more rarely, sometimes we'd pretend to be tourists from Russia.
The bazaar in Bukhara had been swept out thoroughly. The police were chasing out street vendors, and everything was being spruced up -- Prime Minister Mirziyoyev was expected.
Deserted bazaar, Uzbekistan. Photo by Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights.
We had breakfast at a little coffee stand near the bazaar, shishkebobs of stale meat and fried oversalted fish, and watched as a cop next to us sold some rubber flip-flops he had confiscated. Apparently he was selling them at a good price, as they quickly disappeared. : ) )
Policemen selling shoes, Uzbekistan. Photo by Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights.
We picked up our stuff from the luggage room and headed to the bus station. We decided to drive the Nexia to Urgench. The price of the bus tickets was 50,000 soums (the equivalent of about US $22). Although the distance was not great, the road was very bumpy -- hence the price.
To be sure, the Japanese and the Germans are building a new and better road. Our driver raced along the broken pavement, flying over all the bumps and potholes until the motor gave out -- and it was still another 170 kilometers of trackless wilderness to the next town. We caught another jitney travelling on the road and reached the Urgench Hotel late at night, taking a double room for 20,000 soums per person.
Nothing had changed in this hotel in the last year: there was no water in the toilet and it had to be flushed with a bucket, the plumbing stank, the electrical outlets were dangling, and the television was broken. The water was of one kind -- barely tepid. And this was the central hotel - what were the more remote ones like?
In the morning, we bargained with a Russian-speaking taxi driver to pay him by the hour to drive us out to the fields and show us where the school children were working, and stop the car where we asked. The more he could show us, the more he would earn. The driver didn't ask any unnecessary questions, and I think he guessed what we were up to. In the end, he was happy with the amount he earned.
The taxi driver helped us quite a bit, that day was successful. I had never seen so many school children in the fields myself. But there was a teacher and a farmer nearby, and after 15 minutes, they asked us not to take any photos and to leave.
We stopped at a hotel in the city of Turtkul, photographing signs at the local bazaar and khokimyat (administration) and in the evening, took a local bus to the city of Nukus.
The bus driver was a policeman who was picking up his son from the cotton field for a few days at home. It turned out that even a policeman who had a decent rank was unable to get his son out of the harvest work. 'EVERYONE PICK COTTON," as the slogan goes.
In the cities we visited, no policemen were in view, rarely we would see a few.
In Tashkent, state organizations are obliged to send their employees for 10 days of work in the cotton harvest. Teachers who take the place of colleages working in the fields are working extra, and their time is not compensated.
They say a frost is expected soon, and therefore everybody is being sent immediately to the fields.
In Tashkent, people are taken in the morning in convoys of buses accompanied by a police car.
We spent the night at the Nikus Hotel, which was better than the Urgench Hotel (and how do they put up foreigners in these places?) The price of the rooms was higher, but then the plumbing didn't smell and the TV worked. The water flowed on schedule although in a fitful, thin stream (you could wash up if you were willing to stand for five minutes). The TV had both local and Russian channels, with awful shows.
On Karakalpakstan TV, there was a broadcast showing a local Karakalpakstan official who was handing out certificates and gifts to students and workers. Evidently, they had picked a lot of cotton. : ) Then they all sang and danced.
In the morning, we set off for Hojeyli, and in 20 minutes we had arrived. The city was paralyzed -- there wasn't a single coffee stand open at the bazaar, and the marketplace itself was empty, all the stores were closed. A lone peasant was selling some milk and tomatoes. Everybody had gone to pick cotton. The cotton-pickers gathered about 8:00 in the morning near the bazaar, and were taken in buses to the fields.
Local people later told us that merchants, teachers, and day care workers had all gone to the cotton fields. The parents of pre-schoolers would chip in 3,000 soums a month, so that the day care worker could hire somebody to take her place in the fields, and the day care center wouldn't have to close.
There was unemployment and poverty here -- the farther you get from Tashkent, the more poor the cities and towns. Large cities like Bukhara, Samarkand, Urgench and Nikus are undergoing an ostentatious renovation. Old homes are being torn down along the road, and new buildings are being constructed, but behind them there are still the same ruins. There is a big problem in getting water. Because of the shortage of water, the cotton harvest is poor in Karakalpakstan.
The people of Karakalpakstan outwardly appear similar to Kazakhs, and they go to find work in neighboring Kazakhstan. For a bribe of $200 at the passport agency, they could change their ethnicity from Karakalpak to Kazakh. As an ethnic Kazakh, they can obtain a residence permit and have certain privileges.
We also learned about children in 7th grade working in the fields. They would work for two days, then take one day off. They had to bring their own food, and pay 200 soums for the bus.
They were able to earn 100 soums per kilogram of cotton picked (in our province, the rate is 125 soums). In the first few days, they were paid 120 soums per kilo -- the difference of 25 soums is probably going into the bureaucrats' pockets.
The taxi driver was able to find a field where children were working. We didn't attract any particular suspicions and we were able to take some photos and videos. Although people know that there have been stories written on the Internet about the exploitation of children in the cotton industry in Karakalpakstan, no one had ever seen any of the correspondents in person, and didn't know what they looked like or how they would appear.
As we left the field, we saw a van going along the dustry roads toward the school-children laboring in the fields. The taxi driver explained to us that this was the local TV crew. I didn't know what they were able to shoot, and how it would pass the censor, but we were able to get away without incident and reached Nikus and our car, and then in the morning, returned to Tashkent.
As part of its Cotton Crimes campaign, the London-based Anti-Slavery International has produced a powerful video clip to capture the insidious link between consumption of goods in affluent countries and the forced child labour that produces them in countries like Uzbekistan.
Take a look at the video on Anti-Slavery's website, leave a comment on their Facebook page and be sure to sign the petition to end forced child labour in Uzbekistan.
Anti-Slavery Day is coming up October 18.