Umida Niyazova, an Uzbek emigre who founded the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, is a leading child rights advocate campaigning against the use of forced child labor in her homeland.
In a recent interview with cottoncampaign.org, she shared her reflections on the past harvest in the fall of 2010, and what we might expect this year.
1. What are the main lessons learned from the cotton harvest 2010 that we should take into account for 2011 regarding strategy?
I wouldn't say that there was something especially different in the cotton campaign of 2010 that distinguished it from previous years. The method for mobilizing school children and college students to harvest the cotton remained unchanged. In 2010, on the average, the school children and college students were sent to the fields in mid-September until mid-October (in some provinces, until the end of October). They spent about two or two-and-a-half months in the fields.
What I could note, however, is that with each passing year, it is becoming more and more difficult to conduct research, because the authorities want to employ all their efforts to conceal information. For example, school children are forced to work in fields which are located further away from the main highways, so that they are not visible. Teachers are warned to report any strangers who show up at the fields.
In general, in devising a strategy against child labor in Uzbekistan, you likely have to take into account that the people who gain an enormous person profit from cotton are in fact high-ranking officials, who could change the situation very quickly -- but only if they really wanted to do so. These officials have their own strategy. They are masters of bluffing and can easily deny what is obvious without batting an eye. They can go through all the ritualistic activities possible that would seemingly change the situation. That means passing various laws in parliament, or presidential decrees, or instructions from the government, or the passing of a special "yearly plan" to eradicate child labor; they can create a commission to monitor these laws and can ratify the ILO conventions. They can do this endlessly. On the surface, it seems as if there are some sort of positive actions being taken, but in fact, we're running in place.
2. Will the harvest be shorter or longer this year?
In 2010 (by contrast to 2009), the harvest period was shorter. (In 2009, it lasted until December.) This is most likely due to the fact that from the very beginning, there was an imperative to harvest the cotton as quickly as possible, before the rains came. And it is also related, I think, to the increasing attention from the press and human rights organizations to the problem of child labor.
3. What effect will the huge raise in prices have on developments in forced child labor?
The sharp increase in the price of cotton has already had an effect on farmers this year. From all indications, the authorities are trying to extract the last drop of resources out of the farmers' holdings, so that they can get as much cotton as possible. According to reports coming in, local government officials are forcing farmers to plant cotton over their entire land, every bit that they have. That is, sometimes farmers have been allowed unofficially to plant vegetables or fruits on 5-10 percent of their leased land. From that, they can get a profit from sales. But judging from the situation today, farmers are being forced to plow all their lands for crops and plant
It's hard to expect that the situation could improve for forced cotton pickers. This concerns both adults and children who are most likely going to be forced to go out to the fields in mid-September.
4. Are children involved in weeding and the sowing of cotton in the spring?
In the spring, in some provinces, school-children must help with the cultivation of cotton. Sometimes they are sent to work after school; sometimes instead of school. But this does not occur on such a large scale as in the harvesting of cotton. There was a recent report on this on uznews.net.
5. Last year, human rights activists reported more police and army guarding the fields and preventing observers. Will this likely repeat?
I am certain that this year there will be the same kind of control (if not more) over the cotton fields. The government in Uzbekistan understands the power of information; therefore it has closed the offices or bureaus of all independent international media, all the foreign human rights NGOs; the Human Rights Watch office was closed just recently.
"No information -- no problem" -- that's the motto of the current Uzbek government. Therefore, naturally, the authorities will do the maximum to make it difficult to access the cotton fields and document the situation.
6. The government has formed a new working group supposedly to monitor labor conditions. Will this group function? Will it travel to the cotton fields?
So far, the concrete "work plan" of this monitoring group has not been announced. But as I noted above, this is no more than the latest ritual games. I do not think that it is worth ascribing any meaning to a monitoring group that consists of officials from ministries, and which does not have a single independent person in it whose words could be trusted.
7. Have you heard any indication that the Uzbek government will permit the ILO to monitor conditions in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan?
As far as is known, Uzbekistan will not let the ILO group in this year.