How much does President Islam Karimov know about the use of children in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan?
Surely he must know a lot, because he is intimately connected to preparations for the cotton crop this year as in other years, and has become involved in every aspect of the industry personally, right down to the level of moisture in the soil and number of acres planted.
On April 22, President Karimov travelled to the Surkhandarya region to meet with local officials and farmers and hear about the issues for cotton this year. Surkhandyas is the most southern region of Uzbekistan, bordering Tajikistan in the north and east, and Afghanistan in the south.
The Uzbek leader started out with a visit to the Hakim Termizi memorial complex, urging young people to visit the holy place to enrich themselves spiritually for a "harmoniously developed personality" -- that's the theme of his state youth program this year.
Next, Karimov urged that more trees be planted -- the region gets very hot in the summer.
According to the official web site gov.uz and andijan.uz, there are about 5,000 farms function in the region; the farm At-Termizi Namuna, for example, had a rich harvest: 32 centners of cotton and 70 centners of grain per hectare [a centner is 100 kilograms] -- providing an income of 106.6 million soums and profit of 26 million soums [about $15,416]. Of course, farmers have to sell their cotton at the state's fixed prices.
The president asked specific questions about how cotton would be developed this year, said the government report. This year, because of unfavorable weather, "special attention has been paid to feeding the soil with fertilizers. As a result, conditions for a large crop have been created. Surkhandarya farmers have also managed to ensure good cotton growth on 119,600 hectares," said the report. With cotton prices at a record high and continuing to shoot up, obviously the state is interested in making more revenue.
Last year, farmers were trying to reduce moisture in the soil, but this year they are trying to conserve it, says the report.
"In conversation with farmers, the head of the state stressed their role in ensuring the welfare of the people," gov.uz reported. Karimov "emphasized that the state would continue to fully support the farmers."
That's where it got vague.
Nothing about ending the use of child labor in the harvest -- and nothing about ensuring better wages and conditions.
"The President noted that the young people should live with understanding that they are heirs of great ancestors, they should mobilize all of their knowledge, talent and aspirations for further increasing the authority of their Motherland," the official report of the president's tour concluded. Did the subject of child labor come up? The president is in a position to convey the obligations Uzbekistan has undertaken with passing laws against the worst forms of child labor, in compliance with the International Labor Organization conventions.
Instead, the president was preoccupied with a propagandistic event being staged now as part of his "Harmoniously Developed Generation" campaign, a sports competition that has unleashed a frenzy of building and preparations in Termez -- also the site of a German base used to help supply the war in Afghanistan. According to the independent news service uznews.net, in 2008, the state forced teachers to work for free on the event and schools had to pony up $1500 in scarce funds for the program. Reports indicated this year, too, that young people were dragooned into athletic activities that they don't really want to be involved in.
In 2009 and 2010, there were reports received of the use of child labour in Surkhandarya region -- and it's likely it can be expected again this year, given the official silence on the subject. According to fergananews.com:
Some 600 out of 840 schools in Surkhandarya region of Uzbekistan stopped classes for the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades in order to send students to pick cotton, the Ezgulik Human Rights Society reported. About 90,000 students were told to "volunteer" to work at plantations in Surkhandarya, and it is not known when they will be allowed to return to school.