Child slavery is an ongoing problem in Uzbekistan's cotton industry. Around 90 per cent of Uzbek cotton is harvested by hand with approximately half of all cotton picked by state-sponsored forced child labour. Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of children are involved each year.
Uzbekistan is the sixth largest producer of cotton in the world and the third biggest exporter, generating over US$1 billion annually through the export of around 850,000 tonnes of cotton every year. Cotton is currently enjoying a 200 year-high price and Uzbekistan's President Karimov recently announced that the profit from this year's cotton harvest is expected to increase by 35 per cent. Despite these profits, those ordered to pick the cotton remain impoverished.
Every year there is new evidence of children forced to pick cotton during the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. Human rights defenders, independent journalists and photographers monitoring the cotton harvest have confirmed the ongoing widespread mobilisation of forced child labour in the country.
Each September the cotton harvest begins. Many rural schools are closed down by government officials as children, some as young as nine, are forced to pick cotton by hand for up to three months in order to fill the shortfall in voluntary adult labour. They receive little, if any, pay.
Each child is given a daily quota and can collect up to 50kg of cotton a day. Those who fail to meet their targets, or who pick a low quality crop, are reportedly punished by beatings, detention or told that their grades will suffer. Children who run away from the cotton fields, or who refuse to work, are threatened with expulsion from school.
The work is dangerous and one death has already been reported during this year's harvest. Children can be left exhausted and suffering from ill-health and malnutrition after weeks of arduous labour. In 2008 alone there were at least five reported deaths of children due to poor safety standards and the suicide of one girl after she was harshly reprimanded for failing to meet her cotton quota. Older children and those working on remote cotton farms are forced to stay in makeshift dormitories in poor conditions with insufficient food and drinking water.
Children are also forced to manually weed the fields during the growing season and there are reports of children being compelled to apply dangerous pesticides to the growing crop. During a recent investigation by the Environmental Justice Foundation, one child complained that: "It's so hot in the fields and the chemicals burn your skin."
Forced labour within the industry does not just affect children. Local administration employees, teachers, factory workers and doctors are commonly forced to leave their jobs for weeks at a time and pick cotton with no additional compensation. In some instances refusal to co-operate can lead to dismissal from work.
Forced child labour in Uzbekistan is systematically organised by the State. However, the Government of Uzbekistan denies that forced child labour if an official policy, claiming that children volunteer out of loyalty to family or their community, apportioning blame to irresponsible parents.
The single biggest destination for Uzbek cotton is the European market. Despite strong condemnation from the European Union over the use of child slavery in Uzbek cotton production, the EU continues to allow the Government of Uzbekistan to benefit from reduced trading tariffs for its cotton imports to the EU despite its own rules that these benefits should be withdrawn.
Stories from the cotton harvest
* "We're really afraid of getting expelled from school. Every September 2, the first day of school, the Director warns us that if we don't go out to pick cotton we might as well not come back to school. The school administration does everything to create the impression that the schoolchildren themselves are the ones who have decided to go out to the cotton fields. But just try to "voluntarily" not go out to the harvest! We're all forced to obey this unwritten law. And moreover, the only way to get cash is to go out and pick cotton. It's painful to see how the kids knock themselves out in the cotton fields to earn this rotten money. Just think about it: in order to earn 50 sum (four US cents), a kid who is barely 14 has to bend down to the cotton bush over 50 times. And his earnings from a day of this work won't even buy him a pair of ugly socks."
Boy, ninth grade (14 years old), Kashkadaria province
* "This year the chairman of the collective farm insisted that I, and my daughter-in-law and my remaining children, go out to pick cotton otherwise he would take our plot away [garden plot used to grow fruits and vegetables]. The chairman said that if we don't go out, I'll have to pay one hundred thousand sum (approximately US$70- equivalent to more than three average monthly wages). When I said there was no way I could pay that kind of money, he started to threaten that in that case we wouldn't get the welfare payment. I don't know where to turn to complain."
Mother of six children, Boiavut district