UZBEKISTAN: Focus on child labour in southern cotton sector
Karshi, 12 October 2004 (IRIN) - With the cotton harvesting season well underway in Uzbekistan, one of the five top cotton producers in the world, thousands of children are again labouring to bring in the crop. Critics of the practice say it impacts negatively on the health and education of young people. Authorities claim it is an economic necessity to employ children during the harvest. Cheap, if not free, child labour is widely used in the country, particularly during the September to November season.
Gulbog is one of many farms in the country's southern Kashkardarya province that cultivate cotton, Uzbekistan's primary export commodity. One of the farm workers told IRIN on condition of anonymity that in order to fulfil their obligations to supply a specific amount of cotton to the government they had to use children in this highly labour-intensive sector.NATIONAL DUTY
"We started harvesting cotton on 10 September," the worker told IRIN. "School children from local education institutions have been working here. At present, cotton harvesting is continuing and we are going to keep working until we fulfil the national cotton harvesting plan." Every year, as part of a national plan, the authorities determine the amount of cotton that needs to be harvested by each province and district.
Like thousands of other school students across the country, about 100 children from the Abdul Nasimi secondary school in the Kasan district of Kashkadarya province continue gathering cotton on the Gulbog farm.
But teachers at the school see no problem with the practice. "This is the treasure of our country and everybody goes to pick cotton voluntarily. Schoolchildren, teachers and even parents understand that. Cotton is as valuable here as oil," Kudrat Yakheev, a physical training teacher at the school, told IRIN while supervising his students cotton picking. All the students were picking cotton voluntarily, he added.
But a local official told IRIN that school students had been sent to the cotton harvest on orders from Nuriddin Zainiev, governor of Kashkardarya province. "The governor of the province gives verbal instructions to us and we have to follow them," Mamlakat Kadirova, head of Karshi city's education department, told IRIN. IMPACT ON HEALTH AND EDUCATION
The practice of using child labour in the cotton industry dates back to Soviet times, when Uzbekistan was the top cotton producer in the USSR. Although the country's laws say that children under 15 cannot work, tens of thousands of pupils gather cotton instead of attending classes during the months of harvest. Observers say picking cotton rather than studying has an impact on the education and health of the young people, though this is denied by government officials.
"Children's involvement in cotton harvesting does not abuse the curriculum," Kadirova said. "Besides, the curriculum includes a 15-day labour internship, which is in compliance with our actions."
A doctor at a clinic in Karshi city, who didn't want to be identified, said every year local authorities ordered them not to grant sick leave to children as a means of removing excuses to escape from picking cotton.
However, this was denied by Ismat Achilov, deputy head of the social affairs department at the Karshi city administration. He said that the provincial administration gave no such instructions. According to him, the children were harvesting cotton of their own free will.
"Our children are aware of their duties to their motherland and they are always ready, when the motherland needs their help," Achilov said, recalling the patriotic propaganda of Soviet times.
Numbers are huge, more than a quarter of a million Uzbeks are currently working in the cotton fields of Kashkardarya province alone. Of that number, 39,656 are vocational and high-school students along with 44,385 secondary school students, Habib Mamanov from the provincial body on cotton harvesting issues told IRIN. CONDITIONS ON FARMS
Young people are usually found picking the crop for at least 10 hours per day, in all weathers. They live in so called "shiypans" (small tents or old buildings), often under squalid conditions. "I'm not happy with living conditions provided in the shiypan," Hafiza Kudratova, a student from the Bobur secondary school, told IRIN.
"We don't have even enough drinking water. I've been picking cotton since 14 September and haven't yet taken a shower, let alone a bath," she said.
Hafiza is gathering cotton in the fields of farm No 39 in the Kasan district. It is 120 km from her home in Yakkabag district, where she lives with her family. She must gather no less than 50 kg of cotton a day according to the norms set by the school administration.
"We are fed very badly," she maintained. "In the morning we are given only tea with sugar and bread. We have hot meals for lunch and dinner, but with few calories and no meat."
But not all the student cotton pickers grumbled. "I have been gathering cotton for more than a month," Dilafruz Ruzieva from secondary school No 40 in the Karshi district, told IRIN. "I'm not going to complain about the conditions. We have enough of everything and the food is also good," she said.
Bakhodir Eshkabilov, a teacher at the Bobur school, echoed that view. "We have all the conditions provided for good living," he said.
"Children are fed only plain boiled macaroni," Tursunoi Tursunova, director of secondary school No 52 in Kasbin district, told IRIN. "Having seen the living conditions provided, I realised that a human being has less dignity than an animal. It is not my job to pick cotton. But as I am forced, I force other people."
Saimurad Kuchkarov, a therapist at the Karshi city hospital and a human rights activist, has studied the issue of the conditions the students work and live under. "Having visited different farms, I saw that the authorities were not interested in this [health] issue. There is no clean drinking water. The water, which is brought in and kept in tanks, is not even treated with cheap chlorine tablets. The water is muddy. It contains mud and worms, and our children drink it."
According to the doctor, none of the field shiypans have glass in the windows and some of them lack doors. "What will happen to our children when it gets cold? It is no secret that cotton harvesting will go on until the end of November," the health official said.WAGES
"Starting from 4 September, even 11-year-old children were sent to the fields. They get paid US $2.5 to 3 cents per kg of cotton," said Jura Muradov, head of the Nishan district department of Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), adding that they were not provided with transport and had to walk five or six km every morning.
Although child cotton pickers are said to be paid around 3 cents for every kilo of cotton they gather - making roughly $1.50 per day if they gather 50 kg - many of them don't get any money, because the cost of food, often allegedly equal to their daily earnings, is deducted from that amount.
Those who do earn often don't get paid. Abdumalik Ermatov, a teacher at the Al Horezmi school in the Nishan district, told IRIN that children at the school were still waiting for wages from the previous cotton harvesting season.
"Last year, 120 children from our school participated in cotton harvesting. They gathered 6.93 mt of cotton on the "Iris Bobo" farm. The children earned around $237, but up to now we have not been paid what we earned," he said.
Furthermore, the officially announced rate for cotton, which is 3.6 cents per 1 kg, is violated everywhere, rights activists said. "This rate is violated on nearly every farm," Nodir Akhadov, deputy head of the Kashkardarya department of the HRSU, told IRIN. "In some cases, they [children] are paid 3 cents and sometimes 2.5 cents."
"By having children do heavy labour such as cotton harvesting, the authorities violate their rights. In addition to this, Uzbekistan has not signed the International Child Labour Convention since gaining independence [in 1991]," Akhadov said.
But Jomurad Jilavov, deputy head of Kashkardarya province education department, thinks that having children working the cotton fields is not a violation of their rights. "Let human right activists think about the violation of children's rights. We do not have to do that."CHILD LABOUR A NECESSITY
"Children are obliged to contribute their labour for the sake of the country," Jilavov said firmly. "We are concerned about only one issue. That is to finish harvesting before November."
Child labour remained necessary for the agricultural sector as there is a lack of cotton harvesting machines in the area, Akhadov suggested.
Ravshan Kamalov, head of the provincial agriculture and water department, told IRIN that there were only 104 cotton harvesting machines in the province meaning only 14,560 hectares could be mechanically harvested each season.
"This year, cotton was planted on 166,866 hectares of land in Kashkardarya province. Therefore, the available cotton picking machines are not enough to cover all planted areas," he explained.
Also, cotton harvesting using the specialist machinery is more expensive compared to manual labour. "If some $41 is paid per one mt of cotton harvested by machines, about $36 will be paid for manually harvested cotton," he pointed out.
An Uzbek Interior Ministry official who didn't want to be identified told IRIN earlier this year that Tashkent was aware of international condemnation of its policy of utilising vast numbers of children to gather cotton, but said there was no viable alternative.
"We are stuck with our history. Moscow made us the top cotton producer in the old USSR and until we can diversify our economic base we must produce and sell cotton like crazy. The harvest is hugely labour intensive, so we are forced to use kids."