The Uzbekistan regime has long received wide criticism for its coercive policy of using child labour during her cotton harvests every year. The recent case of 13 year-old Bakhodir, is such a child labourer who fell into coma after being hit by a car has become another reason for this condemnation.
In mid-September, Bakhodir Pardeav from Kashkadarya province in southern Uzbekistan was returning home with other school children after helping with harvests in the cotton fields as per the authorities’ directives when he was hit over by a car. He along with others had been forced to walk a dangerous route to the fields and back home alongside highways.
This is just one of the many accidents and atrocities occurring on children every year in Uzbekistan during cotton harvesting. An activist working for the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia has said “ …The country turns into a Stalinist labour camp every harvest. Millions of ordinary citizens and their children are turned into slaves of the ruling regime. There are accidents and food poisoning and diseases, but authorities stop information about them from getting out.”
Uzbekistan boasts of being one the world’s biggest cotton producer and exporter. With the cotton industry adding more than 100 billion dollars to the economy every year, harvesting has been considered as a national economic priority. Hence, for many years, forced labour of children in early primary grades, colleges and university students and civil servants has been used to harvest cotton by hand. Unlike child labour in agricultural sectors in some other countries, this practice is state-organised and state-controlled. Each fall, shortly after the start of the school year, the state orders schools to close and school administrators to send the children out to the fields, where they remain until the cotton harvest is brought in.
It is estimated that about 1-2.5 million children aged 9 to 15, are annually involved in cotton harvesting from September until December. The conditions of work are dreadful and children engage in dangerous and often unsupervised work. As per a report by International Labour Rights Forum, children are forced to stay in barracks in the fields and the barracks are, “Unheated, uninsulated field barracks, normally used to store crops and/or farm machinery… filthy and flea-infested, while the biting insects prevented [the children inside] from sleeping.” Families have no option but to comply with the state otherwise they have to face the threat of loss of social benefits and their children have to bear with exclusion from schools and colleges.
Civil society has for many years strongly advocated and campaigned against the use of child labour in these cotton harvests. The International Labour Conference was organised by Global March Against Child Labour in partnership with others in June 2009 in Geneva where NGOs, business and trade union representatives deliberated on the ways to stop Uzbekistan’s annual exploitation of its children. Despite these efforts, and the Uzbekistan state’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the ILO Conventions 182 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and 138 on the Prohibition and Immediate Action on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, the dictatorial regimes continues with its practice of using child labour in cotton harvests.
“Global March strongly condemns the use of forced labour and child labour in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan and we are devastated by this terrible news and our thoughts go out Bakhodir’s and other child labourers families,” said Kailash Satyarthi, Chairperson of Global March Against Child Labour. “Across the nation, Uzbek children are robbed of their lives and future, subjected to exploitation and deprivation. Western cotton buyers are boycotting Uzbek cotton but global supply chains see cotton exported, processed and re-exported meaning the origin of the cotton in textile products are difficult to identify.”
Despite this bleak scenario, US Secretary Hillary Clinton’s current visit to Central Asia gives a ray of hope. Representatives of American trade unions, labour and human rights groups, investors, brands and retailers have called on Secretary Clinton to raise with Uzbek President Islam Karimov the need to permit the ILO to enter Uzbekistan to inspect conditions in the cotton fields.