Continued Forced Labor in Uzbekistan May Lead to Child Exploitation: Expert Group
As the cotton harvest season opens this year in Uzbekistan, human rights activists fear that a long-existing climate of coercion will inevitably lead to the exploitation of children, the Experts Working Group of Uzbekistan reported.
In a statement for the press issued September 4 in Russian, Sukhrobjon Ismoilov, coordinator of the Expert Working Group of Uzbekistan, said that due to a policy of imposing state quotas and requiring compulsory labor of state workers, the Uzbek government is likely to fail to prevent forced child labor in the cotton fields this year despite making commitments to do so under international agreements.
In 2008, Uzbekistan signed the International Labor Organization (ILO) convention barring child labor and also revised domestic legislature to ban such exploitation. Officials also launched a national program to prevent child labor.
Yet the practice is likely to continue as farmers and parents once again face great pressures under threat of loss of leases or employment to bring in the harvest according to the government’s plan.
Since 2008, due to increased international attention to the problem of child labor in the cotton harvest, the Uzbek government has distanced itself from the practice and shifted the burden to parents, even as it has demanded the population turn out to work. Parents then feel they must say they made a “voluntary” decision to involve children in field work, and even cite the childrens’ own wish to help adults.
This fall, principals at schools have already begun obtaining written statements from parents obliging them not to send their children to pick cotton. Yet in the past, government leaders have also made a number of public statements where they have let it be known that in order to fulfill the state production plan, the cotton harvest has to be gathered by the end of October “by any means necessary” — a hint that child labor will be excused.
Last year, school officials said students would not be involved in the harvest, and adults would be recruited. But when the weather turned bad, at first high school and college students were brought in, and later children as young as 9-10 years old.
This year, local officials are issuing the same quotas and instructions for compulsory work to employees of medical and educational institutions. Farmers are already bringing in laborers this week. Under pressure to fulfill quotas, human rights activists believe they will resort first to bringing in college students, then students from high school and the upper grades of middle school.
Teachers in many rural areas are being forced to reduce their teaching hours and go to work on the harvest, leaving students unattended.
Reports indicate that with more international scrutiny, the government has been paying more attention to living conditions for field hands and has even established some field stations to monitor conditions, says the Expert Working Group. Yet paradoxically, increased attention from prosecutors could force farmers to make use of child labor even more as they face additional pressures.
In the past, the open use of children in the harvest meant that the government centralized and controlled the process. But now that Tashkent is under pressure to appear as if it is no longer using children, recruitment of children then becomes a chaotic and more abusive process. In the last two years, living and work conditions as well as transportation worsened due to lack of organization and oversight. Indications are that officials will now place the blame for child labor entirely on parents. Facing coercion and threats themselves, the state institutions being forced to supply labor to the harvest — schools, hospitals, state enterprises, local government — will be induced to use more illegal and covert means to get the job done. Bribe-giving to gain exemption from field work will likely become more rampant.
In short, human rights monitors say that the entire process of imposing government quotas and then demanding compulsory labor from various categories of state workers to fulfill the state plan will create the climate enabling exploitation of forced child labor once again this year, as in past years. The pressure from central planners will force farmers to cut corners, falsify records, and force workers to accept inadequate pay and to supply their own food and transportation.
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