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.
On April 18, President Islam Karimov signed a decree titled "On Measures to Observe Legality in Reorganization and Optimization of the Sizes of Land Parcels of Farmers' Associations."
This presidential measure translates into further empowerment for local administrative officials to seize farmers' land through the courts, the semi-official Uzbek news site uzmetronom.com reports.
The decree outlines the reasons that would justify seizure of a farmer's parcel, in order to transfer the land to new leasees. These include:
o not using the agricultural land for the stated purpose
o sowing of unauthorized crops not stipulated under the state contract
o failure to produce harvests at the minimum assessment level
o low profitability of the farm
According to local analysts, the decree is unquestionably intended to restrict the development of private farming, and essentially turns farmers' property back into Soviet-style collective farms.
Farmers are forced to plant the crops that the state dictates, and if they are told to plant cotton, that's what they must do. If they plant high-yield melons or peanuts instead, or fail to produce the state quotas, they could lose their land.
The state's purchase prices are notoriously low, and often don't cover even the minimum production costs for the mandatory crops. Farmers trapped in the state quota system will not necessarily see any benefit from rising cotton prices.
By further institutionalizing the harsh controls of the state agricultural system, which maintains only a semblance of private farming, the Uzbek government is further entrenching the system that forces farmers to use low-cost child labor.
Our colleague Umida Niyazova has posted a blog about her childhood and her life as an advocate for child rights, fighting against forced child labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan by documenting the stories of families throughout the country.
Umida remembers her own mother, a teacher in a middle school, compelled to leave her three small children to go work in the cotton fields for a month. She now lives in exile in Germany, where she founded the Uzbek German Human Rights Forum.
Recalling her harrowing imprisonment and ultimate release in Uzbekistan, Umida writes:
Two years ago, I left home after spending four months in prison. My son was three and a half years old when I was arrested and accused of distributing information “endangering national security”. When you end up in an Uzbek prison, you lose the possibility of defending yourself. Of course you can say whatever you want in your defense, but you can be sure of being convicted. On May 1, 2007, the Sergeli District Criminal Court sentenced me to seven years in prison.
But I was lucky.Thanks to a wide-spread campaign organized by my fellow human rights activists, I was freed and pardoned. They forgave me. But I cannot forgive the injustice, cruelty, and greed of the people who are governing Uzbekistan today. I want to report how today in Uzbekistan, just like 25 years ago when it was a part of the Soviet Union, people are forced to harvest cotton.
Working with a network of human rights activists inside the country, Umida has done a great deal to document the forcible use of children to pick cotton in Uzbekistan:
I talked with the father of a 15-year-old student of a technical school, who took his daughter to the area where she was to work. He said: “I noticed that it was a cement surface, covered with a thin rug. My daughter and the other girls slept practically on the floor. My daughter cried and said that the food was repulsive, there were no facilities for washing up, and begged to be taken home. The teacher did not agree to release her. Only after persuading her by bringing her a bag of groceries did the teacher allow me to pick up my daughter for two days on condition that I leave my passport with her as security. I gave her my passport, and my daughter was able to rest at home for two days, after which I took her back to the fields.”
She attributes the chronic persistence of the exploitation of children to the total control of the cotton industry by the state, with fixed quotas, low prices for cotton, and and farmers' inability to pay adult wages.
Read more here at Media Voices for Children.
The Uzbek government has announced the formation of a new working group to ensure no forced child labor is used in Uzbekistan, centralasiannewswire.com reported, citing UzDaily.com, an Uzbek pro-government online business daily.
Yet Tashkent has still not issued an invitation to the International Labor Organization (ILO) to visit Uzbekistan during the cotton harvest season in the fall, and activists are questioning whether the Uzbek government is in earnest with this latest action.
The new intergovernmental working group is made up of government ministries including the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Public Education, and the Ministry of Health, as well as the state-controlled Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Federation of Trade Unions, and the Farmers Association. Government-organized social organizations such as the Women's Committee and Kamolot Public Youth Movement have been included, but there is no representatives from independent non-governmental organizations or civil society.
The group was explicitly prepared to interact with the ILO and provide information on legislation adopted and preventive measures, and was formed on the ILO's three-party principle of representatives from government, employees, and employers -- although the labor organizations are under state control.
The officially-sanctioned group says it will monitor conditions of labor for children under 18 and prevent the worst forms of child labor under the ILO conventions signed by Uzbekistan in 2008 and ratified by the parliament in 2009.
The group seems to have been hastily put into motion in time for the International Labor Conference in June, where Uzbekistan's long-standing practice of the use of child labor in the cotton industry will be examined, and a critical ILO study reviewed.
Based on reports of the systematic use of forced child labor, the ILO has sought an invitation to visit Uzbekistan during the cotton harvest in the fall to monitor the conditions there. The announcement of the working group seems to give the semblance of cooperation with the ILO while distracting from the fact that Tashkent has continued to refuse to issue the invitation.
Umida Niyazova, head of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, told cottoncampaign.org that the measure seemed to be largely for show:
The creation of a working group to monitor child labor is likely a peculiar response by the government to its own decision to refuse an ILO mission to come to Uzbekistan again this year. Under the conditions in Uzbekistan, where every bureaucrat fears saying any excessive or critical word, the creation of a working group made up of representatives of ministries and agencies that are part of the government itself is simply ridiculous. After all, forced child labor in Uzbekistan exists precisely because the government supports this system. Therefore, it would be naive and absurd to suppose that the government is capable of monitoring itself, knowing that it is the state itself that is responsible for the existence of this problem.
It remains to be seen how much the working group will really function, and whether it will attempt to displace authentic monitoring activity by Uzbekistan's beleaguered human rights groups.
The US State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices was released April 8, and Uzbekistan is singled out among the world's worst violators of human rights.
Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Michael Posner outlined three major global trends -- increased government restrictions on non-governmental groups, attempts to block the Internet, and attacks on religious and other minorities -- all factors in Uzbekistan.
In the chapter on Uzbekistan, the State Department discusses "government-compelled forced labor in cotton harvesting," and describes the plight of young children forced to miss school and work in the fields, and all the factors that make it so difficult to address this issue within the country -- harassment and jailing of human rights activists and independent journalists, arbitrary arrest and detention; denial of due process and fair trial; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; and governmental control of civil society activity. In the section on forced labor, the State Department writes:
The constitution and law prohibit forced or compulsory labor, including by children, except as legal punishment for such offenses as robbery, fraud, or tax evasion, or as specified by law. However, such practices occurred during the cotton harvest, when authorities compelled schoolchildren, university students, teachers, medical workers, government personnel, military personnel, and nonworking segments of the population to pick cotton. Credible reporting indicated the use of forced adult labor during the cotton harvest was higher than in the previous year. Local officials, under central authority, reportedly compelled the adults under threats of adverse employment actions or denial of social benefit payments. Authorities expected teachers and school administrators to participate in the harvest either as supervisors or by picking cotton themselves; schoolteachers often bore responsibility for ensuring their students met quotas. Students and adults who did not make their quotas were sometimes subject to ridicule or abuse by local administrators or police. The loss of public sector workers during the cotton harvest adversely affected communities, as medical procedures often were deferred, essential public services delayed, and internationally funded development projects put on hold while implementing partners worked the fields.
And additionally on child labor, the State Department says:
Laws to protect children from exploitation in the workplace provide both criminal and administrative sanctions against violators of the child labor laws; however, these laws were not effectively enforced. Children worked in family businesses in cities during school holidays and vacations, and some children worked as street vendors, often helping their parents. Children also worked in the planting and picking of cotton. Many thousands of schoolchildren and university students worked in the cotton fields during the annual harvest as a result of government mobilization. The national labor code establishes the minimum working age at 16 years old and provides that work must not interfere with the studies of those younger than 18 years old. The law establishes a right to a part-time job beginning at age 15, and children with permission from their parents may work a maximum of 24 hours per week when school is not in session and 12 hours per week when school is in session. Amendments in 2009 abolished a provision that allowed 14-year-olds to be involved with "light work" that did not interfere with education or hinder the health or development of the child. Children between the ages of 16 and 18 years old may work 36 hours per week while school is not in session and 18 hours per week while school is in session.
The use of forced child labor in the cotton sector was widespread. During the fall harvest, local administrators throughout the country closed schools and universities for up to eight weeks and transported students to work in the cotton fields. Although the majority of students appeared to be over the age of 12 years old, 11-year-olds were not uncommon, and there were isolated reports of some students as young as 10-years-old having to work in the fields. Observers reported that older students often worked 10-hour days and frequently were housed in tents or barracks away from their families. For the second year in a row, the majority of classes remained in operation at the younger grade levels.
A section worth noting in particular describes the wages for children, often described as $4-5/per day, and makes an important point about the lower wages for younger children -- only $3.30 per day.
Students and adults made between 100 and 120 soum ($.06) per kilo (2.2 pounds) of cotton picked. Younger students were expected to pick 20 to 45 kilograms of cotton per day, while older students and adults were expected to pick 50 to 60 kilos per day. The resulting daily wage was between 2,000 and 5,400 soum ($1.30 to $3.60) for younger students and 5,000 to 7,200 soum ($3.30 and $4.80) per day for older students. Many universities reportedly threatened to expel students who did not participate in the harvest, and at least one university expelled a student for refusing to participate.
Working conditions varied greatly by region. There were some reports of inadequate food and lodging for the children; there were also reports of students without access to clean drinking water.
The State Department covers the government of Uzbekistan's refusal to permit international monitors in the country to monitor the cotton harvest:
The government's 2008 National Action Plan called for an end to the worst forms of child labor, including forced labor; however, most of its goals have not been reached. The government does not allow independent organizations to assess comprehensively child labor in the cotton sector, nor does it provide figures on the use of child labor in the country.
Who will monitor the use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan this year? With the International Labor Organization (ILO) still not permitted to enter Uzbekistan, with Human Rights Watch kicked out of Uzbekistan, with local groups increasingly under fire from the dictatorial regime of President Islam Karimov, the job of telling the truth about the forced labor of hundreds of thousands of children is getting harder.
The online independent news site uznews.net reported that sources within the ILO told them this week that the Uzbek government has refused to allow the ILO to visit Uzbekistan to monitor the 2011 Uzbek cotton harvest. The decision was said to have been made despite a personal request by European Commission President José Manual Barroso during President Islam Karimov's visit to Brussels in January.
Of course, at the front lines will be local human rights groups who themselves are under intense pressure from the government, who in the past have bravely served as witnesses to the abusive practice. Because of their intrepid reporting, in the last harvest season, the Uzbek government sent more police and troops into the fields to prevent outsiders from monitoring labor conditions. Nevertheless, courageous human rights leaders like Elena Urlayeva literally crawled along the rows of cotton plants, snapping pictures -- until police grabbed her cell phone and deleted photos she took of children working in the fields.
Human Rights Watch has struggled to keep a presence in Uzbekistan for years -- but last month it was forced to pull out of Tashkent as authorities announced its office was being liquidated and its staff were denied accreditation. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times about his experiences trying to get registered in Uzbekistan, HRW researcher Steve Swerdlow said, "it has been clear for years that the government does not want anyone reporting on human rights violations."
The Uzbek government has tried to close off not just Human Rights Watch, but any scrutiny of its rights record. Only one active domestic rights group, Ezgulik, is registered, but it faces constant persecution. Uzbekistan’s activists carry on their work despite daily harassment and the constant danger of surveillance, de facto house arrest, beatings, denial of exit visas, punitive civil or criminal charges — or worse.
It's not just Human Rights Watch -- a number of groups from the American Bar Association to the Open Society Foundation to Freedom House have been forced to leave as well. Says Swerdlow:
Since 2004 the government has kicked out almost every international nongovernmental organization. It has prevented most international news agencies from reporting in the country, and the few remaining local independent journalists work under threat of defamation cases that can result in crippling fines or prison time.
For years the government has persecuted and imprisoned thousands of people for alleged “fundamentalism,” and tortured many of them. It forces thousands of schoolchildren, some as young as 10, to work on the cotton harvest for two months a year. And torture and ill-treatment are widespread and systematic in pretrial detention and prisons.
With the price of independent human rights work so high, it's a wonder that so many dedicated people still keep trying to get the word out. But it has been increasingly hard, as the international community doesn't sufficiently support them, driven by geopolitical and energy security concerns. As Swerdlow explains,
Part of the reason Uzbekistan has been able to get away with all this is that the West, which is increasingly pursuing a policy of re-engagement because of Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan and deposits of natural gas, thinks the Uzbek government has gained the upper-hand.
The ILO is set to review Uzbekistan in June at the International Labor Conference, and Tashkent may reverse this decision as it comes under more scrutiny from the international community. Recently, a group of American business, labor and human rights leaders urged the Uzbek ambassador in Washington to seek his country's permission for the ILO to come to Uzbekistan during the cotton harvest in the fall.
Eight leaders from business, labor, and human rights organizations met with Ambassador Ilhom Nematov, Uzbekistan's envoy to the U.S., on March 11 to express their concerns about the continued use of forced child labor in the cotton industry in Uzbekistan.
The group included representatives from the National Retail Federation and the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Labor-
Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Calvert Asset Management, Global Works Foundation, the International Labor Rights Forum, and Open Society Foundations.
The main message the American campaigners wanted to deliver to the Uzbek ambassador was that it was time for Tashkent to allow the International Labour Organization (ILO) Committee of Experts to come into Uzbekistan to examine conditions there. Apparel brands cannot buy Uzbek cotton until they can obtain assurances that child labor is not used in the harvest.
In 2009, Uzbekistan signed the relevant ILO conventions prohibiting the use of the worst forms of child labor and pledged to eliminate the practice. Numerous reports from local human rights groups and international agencies during the last cotton season, however, indicate that the practice continues unabated.
The group pointed out that for some years, they have asked Uzbekistan to admit the ILO mission and it has refused. Uzbekistan will now be reviewed at the June meeting of the International Labour Conference, the annual ILO meeting at which each member state is represented by a delegation of two government officials, an employer, a worker, and their advisers.
The group then followed up March 25 with a letter to the Uzbek ambassador reiterating the call for cooperation with the ILO:
As we noted during the meeting, we believe that the best way forward is for Uzbekistan to commit as soon as possible to receive a tripartite ILO mission to observe the upcoming 2011 harvest season. Such a mission would provide an impartial analysis of the scope of the problem and constructive suggestions for cooperation in addressing it. By agreeing now to receive a mission, your government would avoid what will undoubtedly be significant criticism at this spring’s International Labor Conference, pursuant to its refusal to accept last year’s recommendation by the ILO Committee of Experts that Uzbekistan host an ILO mission to observe the 2010 harvest. Moreover, your government’s agreement to host an ILO mission could also be seen as a willingness to move forward on an important component of the related issue of trafficking in persons.
The letter was signed by Bama Athreya, Executive Director, Global Works Foundation; Erik Autor, Vice President, International Trade Counsel, National Retail Federation, Brian Campbell, Director of Policy, International Labor Rights Forum, Bennett Freeman, Senior Vice President, Calvert Asset Management, Jeff Goldstein, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations, Pat Keefer, Deputy Director, International Affairs, American Federation of Teachers, Steve Lamar, Executive Vice President, American Apparel & Footwear Association.