Cotton harvesters in Kazakhstan say they have, because of a shortfall of manpower normally supplied by neighboring Uzbekistan, been forced to fall back on employing children and teenagers.
RFE/RL’s Kazakhstan service, Radio Azattyq, reported on October 15 that schoolchildren have been spotted in fields in the Maktaaral and Zhetisay districts of the southern Turkestan region.
Local farmers are traditionally aided by migrants from Uzbekistan, but that channel of labor supply has been interrupted because of travel restrictions imposed in line with the campaign to contain the two countries’ respective COVID-19 outbreaks.
According to the owner of one cotton field, children between the ages of 10 and 15 gather around 30 kilograms of cotton daily, for which they receive compensation of up to $2.
Under Kazakh law, children may be engaged in lawful employment from the age of 14, but only so long as the work does not interfere with scholastic obligations.
This particular moment has been propitious to rule-breaking. Many children are still having to do their studies through distance-learning, via computer, although the lack of necessary connections and technology can make this difficult in rural households.
The father of a 14-year-old body called Sardar shared his account with Azattyq.
“Now they are teaching by computer and telephone. My son can’t study on his own, and there is nobody to teach him at home anyway. We all go out to pick cotton. I took him with me so he wouldn’t stay at home with nothing to do,” the father said.
The administration of a school in the village of Besketik said it tries to make sure that children are present at classes. Moreover, the deputy headmaster said that teachers were holding online parent meetings to explain that it was unacceptable to involve children in cleaning work.
But the experience of the pandemic has been tough for parents and attendance has suffered as a result. Many parents work and are unable to help their children. Even in the more prosperous business capital of Almaty, turnout for online lessons is often lackluster.
And the exploitation of child labor in Kazakhstan was happening even before the pandemic. In previous years, teachers in the South Kazakhstan region have complained that during cotton-picking season, many students skip school to work in the fields. Parents counter such charges by accusing teachers of themselves canceling classes so that they can earn money from picking cotton.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.