The US Embassy in Tashkent described Uzbek students' annual sojourn to the cotton fields as a rite of passage and a fun social occasion where they play guitars and eat trail mix, discounting reports of NGOs about coerced labour and poor conditions. A Bangladeshi UNICEF official was concerned about the impact Western retailers' boycott of Uzbek cotton over forced child labour was having on his homeland's economy, where traders source cotton from Uzbekistan.
For various reasons, both the Guardian and the activist organization Wikileaks have released the remainder of the collection of more than 250,000 cables, including several hundred previously unpublished dispatches datelined Tashkent from the period 2007-2009.
Interestingly, the Embassy cites the state-controlled Uzbek Trade Union's figure of 1.64 million school-age children involved in agricultural work, including cotton-picking. The report also acknowledged that the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey conducted in 2006 by UNICEF was flawed because it was not conducted during the cotton harvest season.
Yet the US seemed determined to reject the reports of local and international NGOs about exploitation of children, and preferred to get the story from the staff of international organizations on the ground in Uzbekistan -- themselves sometimes compromised by their need to keep constructive relations with the Uzbek government in order to to maintain their very presence in this oppressive country.
According to a cable dated February 8, 2008, Mahbub Sharif, a Bangladeshi national who was then head of UNICEF in Tashkent said that when the Uzbek government was concerned about foreign criticism and asked for advice in how to handle the issue, he said "increased transparency on the child labour situation could help ease international pressure." But he then claimed that child labour in Uzbekistan was "not much different than in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh" and "reflects pressures by families rather than the government.“ In fact, Uzbekistan's profile is different than South Asian due to the state quota system -- a factor Sharif is shown as acknowledging in other cables. Sharif suggested that the Uzbek government develop an action plan to ensure employment of school-aged children was in compliance with international standards.
The Embassy was impressed that "the Uzbeks have broached the issue at all with UNICEF and the International Labor Organization" (ILO) and felt this reflected "genuine concern" about the potential economic concern of boycotts ; the cable author added that "in our field observations the use of pre-teens such as depicted in last October's BBC document is much more the exception than the rule."
Other cables address claims by both the Uzbek government and foreign experts that Uzbekistan was moving away from cotton to other crops. The US relays the argument from officials of the Uzbek Ministry of Education that while school-children *did* in fact spend "several weeks" picking cotton, they ultimately had "as many classroom hours as students in the United States" due to six-day school weeks and fewer vacations. Even so, the dispatch writer said various sources had indicated that children worked from one to six weeks in the fields, and noted the reluctance of Uzbek officials to share child labour statistics.
In 2009, after five months of talks, UNICEF finally concluded an agreement with the government of Uzbekistan to work on a national action plan; according to a cable from April 9, 2009, UNICEF representative Sharif then counseled that boycotts would "derail further progress." He was told the Uzbek government was "now considering" inviting an ILO representative and would meet one in Moscow if invited. (Tashkent has not invited the ILO to Uzbekistan to this day.)
Sharif continued to theorize with Uzbek officials about ways to reduce the exploitation of children -- perhaps through greater mechanization. When it was explained that machinery damaged cotton and lowered its value, he suggested finding stronger strains of cotton to grow. The Uzbek government did not seem serious about changing anything regarding child labour, yet the UNICEF official continued to urge engagement. At a round table with international agencies and foreign embassies, the US cable author reported that "while UNICEF representatives allowed that the threat of an international boycott of Uzbek cotton might have encouraged the government to adopt legal reforms, they believed that such threats have outlived their usefulness."
In a subsequent meeting reported by the post on October 8, 2008, Sharif was quoted as saying "the boycott was already negatively impacting textile producers in his home country" and that those supporting the boycott had to realize it affected more than just Uzbekistan
Despite NGO findings of coercion and intimidation, in a cable dated January 9, 2009, the Embassy still continued to report its belief that child labour was not forced, prefering to use the term "mobilized" versus "forced labour" and that school-children's cotton picking was "an ingrained part of the local culture" and was an "exhausting rite of passage."
Many students look forward to the annual mobilization to pack their guitars, trail mix-equivalent snacks, vodka (for university students), and head out to the farms. The work can be exhausting, but they make the best of it. Students sometimes have campfires and enjoy evening entertainment, which provide opportunities to mingle with members of the opposite sex more freely than at home.
Both the US Embassy and UNICEF have new representatives in Tashkent now -- perhaps they can make up for their predecessors' minimizing of the documented phenomenon of forced child labour. UNICEF conceded the problem in a presentation last year about a joint mitigation program with the Uzbek government to try to send older students to the fields, and later in the school year.
This article first appeared on Choihona at EurasiaNet.org.