FORCED LABOUR OF ADULTS AND CHILDREN IN THE COTTON FIELDS OF UZBEKISTAN
Cotton and the Uzbek Economy
* Uzbekistan is one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton (Uzbekistan ranks between 3rd and 5th, depending on the year, with US, India, Australia and Brazil). The largest importers of Uzbek cotton are, in order: China, Bangladesh, Russia, and the European Union. Most of this cotton is used to produce clothing and household goods.
* Cotton continues to generate over $1 billion annually.
* Uzbek farmers are bound to cotton production quotas by their government since they do not have full ownership rights to their land. Farmers sign long-term leases that, in an annual renewal, stipulate the percentage of land to dedicate to cotton and year’s cotton production quota.
* The set prices paid for cotton imposed by the Uzbek government do not allow farmers to cover the expense of their inputs. This lack of revenue and profit does not allow farmers to invest in harvesting machinery or compensate hired labour under terms of decent work.
* Government control of Uzbekistan’s cotton industry has been the norm since Soviet days. The “command economy” did not end with Uzbekistan’s separation from the USSR and with restructuring of the collective and state farms into ‘private’ farms.
* Unemployment is high in Uzbekistan. According to the International Organization for Migration, up to 27% of the population of Uzbekistan are labour migrants, who emigrated to work in neighboring countries due to minimal or lack of payments for their work.
Forced Labour of Children and Adults in the Cotton Fields
* 1.5-2 million children and adults are forced to pick cotton every year by the Government of Uzbekistan
* Some schools in the cotton-growing regions close for about two months, from September through November, so children pick cotton seven days of the week. Children are removed from schools and forced to work in the fields in all 13 regions of the country.
* Each province and region of Uzbekistan has an established infrastructure complete with police enforcement that monitors farmers and cotton fields, and mandates administrators of schools, hopsitals and other public institutions to mobilize children and adults.
* Children and adults from rural areas are called to the fields for compulsory weeding in May and June, which adds to the overall period of their absence from school or work.
* Some children working in the fields are as young as 10 years old, though the largest populations of children begin picking cotton in colleges, which are the equivalent of high schools in the US and European systems (15-18 years olds).
* Adults forced to pick cotton include university students, public sector workers – including teachers, doctors, nurses, military personnel; and private sector companies, including multinational corporations; and members of mahalla committees, the neighborhood organizations responsible for responsible for distributing government welfare benefits, such as stipends for the elderly and young mothers. Many business owners are also forced to contribute financially.
* Daily quotas for schoolchildren is 60 – 110 pounds (30 – 50 kilos) of raw cotton per day (depending on the grade/school/location/time period).
* Children who fail to pick the quota face fines, physical punishment or expulsion from school, and their parents may have their utilities or social benefits cut off. Adults who fail to fulfill their quota face dismissal from work and the loss of salary, pensions, and welfare benefits.
Uzbekistan and Labour Rights
* On March 6, 2009 Uzbekistan ratified the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) Minimum Age Convention (C138) and on June 24, 2008 Uzbekistan ratified the ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (C182).
* Section 241 of the Labour Code of Uzbekistan prohibits the employment of persons under 18 years in hazardous work, including cotton picking.
* Starting In 2009 international employers and trade unions brought forward information related to forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector and requested an ILO review of the country’s compliance with its commitment to ILO conventions.
* Despite the repeated recommendation by the ILO’s Committee on the Application of Standards to send a high level, tripartite ILO mission to monitor during the harvest, the mission has not been granted by the Government of Uzbekistan.
* In all public forums, from the United Nations agencies to meetings with the Cotton Campaign coalition, representatives of the Government of Uzbekistan all consistently deny there is a problem with forced labour of children and adults in the Uzbek cotton industry.
Uzbekistan and Human Rights
* In Uzbekistan, open criticism of the government in the press faces prosecution, fines and prison terms.
* The use of torture and inhuman treatment is a common practice by the Uzbek police and prison administration.
* The President of Uzbekistan has suppressed civic freedoms and all political opposition since 1992, when Uzbekistan became independent from the Soviet Union.
* After the Uzbek government handled a 2005 peaceful protest by opening fire on its citizens killing several hundred people in the province of Andijon, the government shut down the majority of foreign funded non-governmental organizations in Uzbekistan.
* The Aral Sea, once the 4th largest lake in the world, has been reduced over the past 50 years to roughly 10% of its original size due to water mismanagement and irrigating cotton fields.
* This environmental disaster has affected the entire region and neighboring countries. Due to the lack of crop rotation and compulsory cotton quota the soil has been poisoned with cotton pesticides, most species of fish native to the Aral Sea are now extinct, climate for the region has become more dry, fishermen are out of business, and there are reports of increased tuberculosis, lung disease and cancer in the region.