In the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan, thousands of children as young as seven are sent by their government to work in cotton fields instead of attending school. The government uses the children’s labor to assure that its own quotas are met. Even children who are enrolled in rural schools are often dispatched to work in the fields and their schools closed down by government officials during the harvest. The human rights concerns surrounding Uzbek cotton production has lead to a call for a boycott of Uzbek cotton from Uzbek activists.
Uzbekistan is a former Soviet Republic with an economy that is heavily dependent on agriculture. Cotton or “white gold, as it is often referred to, is Uzbekistan's most important crop. Uzbekistan is currently the world’s second largest exporter of cotton and the fifth largest producer, selling over 800,000 tons of cotton a year.
According to a report released by ILRF in June 2009, Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth largest producer of cotton, and the third largest exporter. For decades, it has used the forced labor of its schoolchildren starting in the early primary grades, college and university students, and civil servants, to harvest that cotton by hand. Unlike child labor in agricultural sectors in some other countries, this practice is organized and controlled by the central government. Each fall, shortly after the start of the school year, the government 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.
The conditions in which the children work are appalling. Children are required to engage in dangerous and often unsupervised work. This has led to numerous injuries and even deaths. In a report released by the ILRF, both children and parents made it clear that all tenth and eleventh graders that worked in the fields were forced to stay in barracks. One child called the conditions in the barracks “unbearable.The report stated that the barracks were, “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. Children were fed mostly bread and turnips.
In the fields children are supplied with a minimal amount of food, which they often have to pay for, and have little access to clean drinking water. The lack of clean drinking water and proper food has lead to serious health risks including gastroenteritis and hepatitis.There is little or no medical services provided to either the children or teachers.
Children that refuse to participate in the harvesting of cotton face retaliation from school administrators, who are under pressure from the government to meet cotton quotas. In the ILRF report, when asked by one of the interviews what would happen to a child that refused to pick cotton, the respondent replied, “They beat them." On top of the physical abuse suffered by children refusing to work, they also face mental intimidation. Student’s grades and the threat of expulsion are used against those children who do not meet their quotas.
At the same time the parents of these children are unable to speak out against the government’s use of forced child labor without risk of retaliation. One parent commented that: “If I object to my son’s participation in the cotton harvest, then they can take this workshop away from me. In addition to endangering their businesses, parents that speak out risk having vital social services withheld, utilities cut off, and garden plots plowed under.
Forced child labor ultimately is used to support the political elites that run the Uzbek authoritarian government. Cotton farmers must sell their crop to the government at the below-market rates that it sets. Once purchased, the government then sells the cotton on the global market for the actual market price. The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) reported that cotton farmers in Uzbekistan receive approximately one third of the actual value for their cotton.
The use of forced child labor to benefit political elites in
The Uzbek government, led by President Islam Karimov, does not deny that children work in the fields but claims they are not forced to be there. Instead they often claim that the children want to work in the fields because of loyalty to their families, community, or country. Parents, teachers, and students make it clear that children are sent to the cotton fields by orders from the government. One parent stated: “The provincial governor gives the orders, and the police and prosecutor’s office, and the provincial education department, together with the provincial governor office carry them out.
Uzbekistan is the second largest cotton exporter in the world - this means its cotton makes its way to Bangladesh, China, and many other countries where clothing and textiles are exported to the U.S. and sold by some of the most popular companies. ILRF, the As You Sow Foundation and other organizations have been in continual dialogue with companies that may have Uzbek cotton in their supply chains. ILRF, the American Federation of Teachers and other staged a protest outside of the Embassy of Uzbekistan on October 14, 2009 (view images) to increase pressure on the Uzbek government.
In an editorial published in the LA Times in September 2009, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin stated that: “More than 25 major brands and retailers have joined the campaign to end forced child labor in Uzbekistan, including American Eagle Outfitters, Bed Bath & Beyond, Gap Inc., JC Penney, Kohl's, Levi Strauss & Co., Limited Brands, Nike, Nordstrom, Timberland, TJX Cos. Inc., Phillips-Van Heusen Corp., Target, the Walt Disney Co. and Wal-Mart.” You can see the commitments of each company here.
Uzbek children are robbed of their education by being forced to pick cotton for their government. It is also painfully obvious that children want to be in school and not in the fields. One Uzbek child said: “I hate this work. It would be so much better to study in school and get an education.” ILRF is working with a broad range of non-governmental organizations, socially responsible investors and businesses to pressure the Uzbek government to put an immediate end to these brutal practices.
Read articles and press releases on child labor in Uzbekistan here.