Fight Child Labor in Uzbekistan
As the harvest season for cotton in Uzbekistan begins, 2 million Uzbek children, some as young as six or seven and ranging up to 15, will be forced to spend their days picking cotton instead of attending classes.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Labor Department included cotton from Uzbekistan on a list of goods produced by forced and child labor. Each year during the three-month harvest, Uzbek authorities shut down hundreds of schools, hospitals and public offices. Along with the children, thousands of teachers, doctors and public administrators are forced into the fields.
The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) has joined with AFT and a broad range of organizations in the United States and Central Asia to call for an end to forced child labor in Uzbekistan. You can act today to stop this shameful practice by signing a petition here.
All supporters who sign the petition by Oct. 2 will have their names put on a special cotton quilt that will be unveiled at a rally in front of the Uzbek embassy in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 14. To get more involved in this action, e-mail email@example.com.
Every day more than 200 million children around world—one in every six between ages five and 17—go work instead of school, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Child labor, says U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, continues to be a serious global “problem in 21st century society,” and she says the United States “must do everything in our power to end these shameful practices.”
Uzbekistan is the world’s third-largest exporter of raw cotton and generates some $1 billion a year in cotton exports. Up to one-third of the country’s workforce labors on cotton farms. Independent union representation is almost nonexistent for workers.
Some children who work in the cotton fields are required to work in remote areas where they are forced to stay in dormitories while they pick cotton. Children are even compelled to apply toxic pesticides in parts of Uzbekistan without appropriate protective gear, according to ILRF.
The AFL-CIO Solidarity Center reports that the children working in the fields must meet daily cotton quotas, and those who fail or refuse to take part can face corporal punishment and expulsion from school. Consequences for parents who protest also can be severe: Their social benefits may be revoked, they may be shamed at public meetings or their utilities may be cut off.
The Solidarity Center is part of a broad-based coalition of concerned organizations, led by ILRF, urging the Uzbek government to put an end to these brutal practices. Click here to download an ILRF report, ”We Live Subject to Their Orders: A Three-Province Survey of Forced Child Labor in Uzbekistan’s 2008 Cotton Harvest.”
In an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, says forced labor in the cotton fields benefits the Uzbek dictatorship, while the children and other workers get only meager meals for their work.
President Islam Karimov, the strongman leader in Uzbekistan since Soviet times, has not only suppressed democracy, he has maintained his regime’s rigid monopoly as the sole purchaser of cotton grown in the country. Uzbek farmers are required to sell their cotton to state trading agencies at less than one-third the world market price. In turn, the government sells the cotton on commodity exchanges at the market price, guaranteeing huge profits.
Consumers and companies in the United States and Western Europe prop up this “monstrous system” by unwittingly purchasing cotton harvested by forced child labor, Harkin says. Most Uzbek cotton is sold to countries in South Asia and Eastern Europe. From there, the cotton is processed and turned into garments sold in retail stores in the United States, Canada and Western Europe.
Harkin says an international network of nongovernmental organizations, U.S. retailers, manufacturers, faith-based investors and others has come together to try to persuade the Uzbek government to end its use of forced child labor. But the Uzbek government has refused to end the practice despite making promises to do so. He warns:
It is time for the Uzbek government to begin acting in good faith. It should immediately invite the ILO to send an expert observer and assessment mission to Uzbekistan as a prelude to the long-term engagement necessary to reduce and ultimately end forced child labor in that country’s cotton fields. It should allow Uzbek children to leave the fields and return to school.