Organizations working in the campaign against forced child labour have estimated the number of children working in the cotton fields to be from 1.5 million to 2 million. These estimates were made on the basis of extrapolation of numbers based on surveys of limited areas. Recently, two new sources became available which help confirm these figures and indicate in fact the number may be higher.
Uzbekistan is a closed society with an authoritarian regime where independent local and international monitors are heavily discouraged, and the media is not free to report critically without reprisals. Uzbekistan has not permitted the International Labour Organisation to enter the country and monitor the cotton harvest to determine the ages of people working and the conditions of their work.
Therefore, past estimates have had to rely on studies of some provinces and extrapolation from available known data
The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London has published studies of the use of children in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan for a number of years. The latest study was based on past reports that were updated in 2010. Based on a survey of some areas, SOAS was able to estimate the number of children used in the cotton harvest:
Based on the survey of six districts, and extrapolating on the basis of further evidence, the conclusion was that ‘[p]ractically all school children between the ages of 10 and 15 years old (from 5th to 9th grades) in rural areas and small towns (district centres) were being recruited for the cotton harvest’ (SOAS, 2009: 19). This equates to about 2.4 million children in the 5th–9th grades and means that children picked an estimated 40–50% of the total cotton harvest.
In August of this year, a number of cables alleged to have been obtained from diplomatic sources by the activist group WikiLeaks were published. The release of these cables began in November 2010 and have continued throughout the year, culminating in the largest batch. Among these cables are numerous reports from the US embassy on its meetings with Uzbek officials and representatives of UNICEF regarding the issue of forced child labor.
In a cable dated June 6, 2008, the US Embassy in Tashkent quoted the figure supplied by the state-controlled trade union:
According to a knowledgeable source, the Trade Union of Uzbekistan (a quasi-governmental organization) estimated in 2008 that 1.64 million school-age children were involved in agricultural work, including cotton picking, representing 45 percent of the total number of Uzbek schoolchildren in grades 5 to 11.
Since most of the agricultural work performed by school-children in Uzbekistan relates to the cotton industry, it is safe to say that the 1.64 million children referenced here are involved in cotton-picking.
This cable also mentions non-governmental groups inside the country who have estimated that anywhere from several hundred thousands to 2 million children could be involved in harvesting cotton. In defense of argumentation that there are less children employed than previously, the cable notes the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey performed by UNICEF, a study that was later acknowledged by UNICEF to be flawed. The cable author as well notes that the survey was conducted in March and May 2006, and thus did not capture the use of children during the fall cotton harvest period from September through November.
Although this cable conceded both the NGO estimates of one million and even referenced the official trade union figure of 1.64, in a subsequent cable, a US diplomat contradicted the Embassy's own previous assessments and claimed that NGO figures were not reliable.
NGOs have continued to press for the entry of the ILO into Uzbekistan, and to gather information about forced labor.
This season, there was a breakthrough when monitors inside Uzbekistan were able to get a hold of a document that indirectly confirms the numbers of children mobilized in one region.
The Paris-based group Association Droits de l’Homme en Asie Centrale (the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia, AHRCA) recently was able to obtain an official government document that indicates plans by the authorities to send as many as 170,000 school-children to pick cotton in the Khorezm region.
The document -- an official press release -- is said to demonstrate the wide-scale involvement of the state bureaucracy in both coercing children and adults to pick cotton, and punishing them if they fail to obey orders.
The press-release, prepared by the Khorezm region Interior Ministry, stated:
In order to have a quality harvest, in the 2011 harvest, we will have a short time frame to mobilize cotton-pickers, a total of 202,641 people, including 34,800 students from colleges, and high schools. 463 temporary residences (302 field barracks), 109 civilian housing units, 52 tents, etc., have been prepared for their accommodation
This type of press release is typically distributed among local mass media and to the participants of staff meetings held nearly every evening during the cotton season at the offices of provincial and district authorities.
As AHRCA points out, if the authorities have given the total of 202,641 in their province, and the 34,800 college students are subtracted from that figure, the remainder is 167,841 people -- and these are likely to be even younger students.
(In Uzbekistan, where children attend school for 10 years, "college" means a high-school level vocational school or academy for older teens).
While there is only an indirect indication that this figure of nearly 170,000 is a reference to school-age children, it's very likely that for the purposes of planning, this is what is intended, since officials would know the exact number of students enrolled. If the reference was to day laborers, for example, the figure could only be approximate as the large number of labor migrants abroad and the numbers of those returning to Uzbekistan are fluid. If the reference was to teachers or other state employees, they would have been mentioned as a category of people.
Based on the figure of 170,000 out of the population of Khorezm, which constitutes 6% of all 13 cotton-producing regions of Uzbekistan, the likely number of schoolchildren mobilized to pick cotton throughout the country is then estimated at 2,797,350 persons, or at the very least, 2.5 million people.
The document also outlines the coercive nature of the cotton industry:
The subjects of this forced labor are not only schoolchildren and students, but the farmers themselves. Criminal proceedings are brought against those who plant anything other than cotton in their fields, such as more profitable crops, or those who allow livestock to graze in their fields. Two typical details from the press release of the Ministry of Internal Affairs:
1) "As a result of measures taken by law enforcement bodies, we have identified 230 cases of rice cultivation without permission, and among them 222 cases at farms and 8 cases of partial allotments, a total of 941 hectares...According to these facts, materials were prepared and brought to the courts to take action in accordance with the law."
2) "...On June 2, 2011 in the village of Boshkirshik, Yangibazar district, in the cotton field at the Istikbol Farm owned by Atadjanov Saparboy (date of birth: 09/30/1956), a cow trampled 293 cotton bushes on a 95.4 square kilometer area."
For this "offense," the farmer's cow was confiscated, slaughtered, and the meat was turned over to other agencies.
"This document demonstrates that the government of Uzbekistan does not intend to change anything in the command economy established in the cotton industry, with its usual practice of mass forced labor of workers sent to pick cotton each autumn," says AHRCA.
"In our view, the only way to persuade the Uzbek government to stop the Stalinist practice of forced labor is to conduct a boycott of its cotton and textiles," says AHRCA.
AHRCA has called upon the European Parliament to reject pending legislation that would give preferential tariffs for Uzbek textiles exported to Europe and to abolish the Generalized System of Preferences for Uzbek cotton and textiles.