Child Labour Rebranded as "Voluntary"

  • Officials insist minors working on the cotton harvest are there of their own free will. (Photo: Andrei Kudryashov, 2009)

Despite international pressure over the use of child labour, the authorities in Uzbekistan are expected to send school pupils out into the fields again for the autumn harvest. But in an attempt to deflect criticism, the practice will be presented as voluntary work. 

Despite signing international conventions outlawing child labour and banning the practice in national law, the Uzbek state continues to turn a blind eye to the presence of thousands of children weeding and picking cotton. The crop is a major export earner for the state, which has a monopoly over purchases from farmers.

In late July, the United States Department of Labour published an updated list of 29 items prohibited for sale in America because of concerns that coerced child labour is used in their production. Uzbek cotton featured high on the list.

In recent years, major importers and retailers have boycotted Uzbek cotton, including the Wal-Mart and Tesco chains.

The Uzbek authorities reject claims that they sanction, still less organise work by minors, and say that if there are any children out in the fields, they must be there of their own accord.

However, the evidence tells a different story – that state institutions continue to play a lead role in dispatching work parties of schoolchildren to the cotton plantations.

A teacher in the Fergana Valley in the east of Uzbekistan said the school head was now holding meetings at which staff were briefed on their obligation to “teach children how to correctly answer questions from journalists and human rights activists… and say they want to help their parents and their motherland”.

“That’s what children say when they’re asked, but in reality of course they don’t want to work in the fields,” the teacher said.

A journalist in Tashkent said he had tried to report on the issue, but whenever he interviewed children in the field they replied that they were just helping the adult workers.

“The children are afraid that if they complain, they will be punished, their school grades will be marked down, and they will face humiliation,” the journalist said.

The mother of a 12-year-old boy in Namangan province in the Fergana Valley described the kind of trouble that anyone who opted out would face.

Last autumn, she was among a group of parents who decided that their children were too young to take part in harvesting work.

In response, the mahalla committee, the lowest tier of local government, threatened to withhold cottonseed oil and flour, which are available at subsidised rates to people issued with a form of ration card, and to stop their child benefits.

“We had no option but to send our children to pick cotton,” the woman concluded.

This autumn, many children expect to face conditions as arduous as last year.

Farangiz recalled being forced to begin the harvest early in the morning.

“We got cold although we had coats on,” said the 14-year-old from the northern Khorezm region. “There was almost no cotton, but they forced us to pick it…. Then we gathered wood and made a fire to get warm.”

Aziz, from the Fergana Valley town of Kokand, said he and his classmates were hungry and thirsty but were not allowed to leave until they had picked a set quota of cotton.

“We brought flatbread from home, one or two each, he said. “We soaked it in water from the ditch, and that’s what we ate.”

This article was produced as part of IWPR’s News Briefing Central Asia output, funded by the National Endowment for Democracy.