From the first days of May the Uzbek youth at secondary schools, lyceums and colleges in Bukhara, Samarkand, Jizzakh, Syrdarya, Khorezm regions and autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan were forced to attend spring cotton cultivation activities, includng weeding and tilling. It is reported that the same type of practice with forced spring labor is taking place in all other areas of the country. The minors from secondary schools involved in this type of forced spring labor are 13-16 years old (7-8-9th grades of school) and minors from lyceums and colleges are 16-18 years old.
From Monday to Friday the Uzbek youth involved in forced spring labor attend the local cotton fields from 13.00 afternoon till 18.00 evening. And on Saturdays and Sundays they attend the cotton fields from 09.00 of morning till 18.00 evening. Thus on Saturdays the classes for these groups of children are cancelled. The sources say the spring forced labor for the children would last until May 20-25.
This type of labor is not paid. The Uzbek authorities and theirorganizers of the spring forced labor prefer to call this process as "hashar", which in Uzbek stands for unpaid voluntary physical activity.
Children often reach the local cotton fields on foot accompanied by their teachers and administration of the schools. They have to bring their own food and drinking water with them to the fields. They have to consume their food directly in the fields. There are no proper facilities and conditions, neither hygienic conditions for eating nor medical personnel to check the health conditions of the children forced to work.
Nasiba, an 8th grade girl from a secondary school in Bukhara region shares her observations: "Each day after our classes we do hilling in the cotton fields. On Saturdays and Sundays our work starts from the morning. We have to bring our own food and water with us. We have also to bring our work instrument with us. It could be a pick or sickle"
Sardor, a college student from Samarkand region was able to buy himself out from spring forced labor: "I am preparing for entrance exams to the university right now. They have taken everybody from our college to the cotton fields. I had to reach a deal with the college deputy director and give him money, and now I am free both from classes and forced labor. The major priority for me right now is preparing for entrance exams"
A beginning teacher at a lyceum in Karakalpakstan has also shared his concerns: "I have started working in the educational sphere recently after I finished the university three years ago. But for those three years I have managed to hate my job. Sometimes it is so difficult to understand whether I am a teacher or a farm worker. During spring months we are forced to be involved in weeding and tilling of the cotton plants; during summer days we are forced to get involved in pruning cotton plants; and during autumn season we are forced to pick the cotton crop.
Unless the Uzbek government find enough political will to acknowledge the problem of forced child labor and eradicate it fully, the problem of forced child labor in cotton cultivation and harvesting will remain in Uzbekistan for many years yet. To date, the Uzbek authorities have made only symbolic gestures.
On 26 March 2012 the Uzbek Cabinet of Ministers adopted Decree # 82 "On additional measures for 2012-2013 on implementation of the Conventions on Forced Labor and Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor ratified which Uzbekistan has ratified". The Decree introduced a Government Action Plan for 2012-2013. The Uzbek authorities and diplomats have started advertising the above mentioned Decree and Action Plan widely as a measure on countering forced child labor in cotton harvesting. However neither the Decree, nor the Action Plan (the whole document comes in a 9 page document) acknowledges the forced child labor problem. The Action Plan has barely mentioned the forced child labor in cotton harvesting just in one of the provisions - Activity # 18 of the Action Plan says the following (highlighted by us - the Expert Working Group):
"Carrying out monitoring of prevention of forced labor of pupils of secondary schools in cotton harvesting; submitting an analytic report on the findings of the suggested monitoring together with recommendations to the Uzbek Cabinet of Ministers; deadline for the suggested activities - annually from August to October; Responsible organizations - the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of Population; the Ministry of Public Education; the Prosecutor General's Office; Council of Ministers of the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan; regional hokimiats (regional administration - the Expert Working Group) and Tashkent city hokimiat".
The measures suggested in the government Action Plan raises many questions: Why is it not possible to just ban forced child labor in cotton cultivation and harvesting? Why does the government Action Plan fail to mention the youth and adults who are also forced to work in the cotton fields? The International Labour Organisation Convention on forced labor includes all ages of people, and the Uzbek government has ratified the convention. Why does the government Action Plan propose monitoring only from August to October - the Uzbek authorities use the forced child labor during spring, summer and late autumn (November) seasons as well?
There could be one common response to those questions. The Uzbek authorities don't actually want to eliminate the practice of forced child labor in cotton cultivation and harvesting. However the ongoing international criticism around this problem has started to have an effect.. The Uzbek authorities have felt obliged to take some minimal steps, even if at the level of amendments of existing legal norms. The international community and civil society in Uzbekistan should pursue all possible efforts to achieve full elimination of forced child labor in cotton cultivation and harvesting in the country.