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SOAS Study Reveals Ongoing, Institutionalized Forced Child Labor in Uzbekistan

The School of Oriental and African Studies Centre for Contemporary Central Asia and the Caucasus at the University of London (SOAS) has published a report on the use of forced child labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry. The landmark academic study, titled "What Has Changed? Progress in Eliminating the Use of Forced Child Labor in the Cotton Harvests of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan" and released in November 2010 is based on 97 interviews in Uzbekistan regarding the 2009 harvest.

The survey indicates that despite government commitments to end the practice of exploiting child labor, children are still commanded to work in the fields by government and school authorities. The 31-page report illustrates the institutionalized nature of forced child labor and outlines the motivations that keep the system in place, thereby establishing the Uzbek government's accountability for ongoing violations of the conventions of the International Labor Organization which it signed in 2009.

The SOAS report found that "the data clearly demonstrates that child participation in the cotton harvest is extremely widespread and that there has been no fundamental change from earlier years." Most children worked for two months, although in an echo of the previous year's attempt to limit the practice, first older children of 15-16 years of age were mobilized, then younger ones aged 12-14, and children even as young as seven were found contributing on weekends, says SOAS.

Reports compiled by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights and other NGOs provide ample illustration that the practice of forced child labor continued throughout the 2010 harvest. The SOAS survey results account for why the practice is not abating: "there is a systematic mobilization of children by the central state that utilizes the school system and leaves almost no room for choices at the level of children and parents and remarkably little agency on the part of the school authorities and even farmers."

The cotton industry is critical to Uzbekistan and pressure from international institutions has not caused Tashkent to significantly change its policies, says SOAS. Following a 2007 BBC documentary produced by the Environmental Justice Foundation, a group of civil society activists, mainly emigres, called for a boycott which was joined by NGOs and trade unions and ultimately several dozen retail companies including WalMart and Tesco.

Yet the firms targeted in this campaign, such as H&M argued that while they try to avoid cotton from Uzbekistan, they and other major retailers cannot be assured that no Uzbek cotton will end up in their products. The issue of traceability is "central to the arguments over the efficacy of the boycott," says SOAS. When asked about H&M's Bangladesh suppliers, who were said to be using fabric made of Uzbek cotton, H&M's response was that it does not demand that suppliers in Bangladesh keep them informed about the source of their fabric.

Another argument is that Western boycotts will have little effect, as Uzbekistan sells its cotton to Russia and Asian companies. Yet as Western retailers make use of Asian cotton that could be sourced in Uzbekistan, NGO campaigners hope ultimately to have an effect.

Uzbekistan has maintained that as a result of a privatization process, child involvement in the cotton harvest has been in the context of family farms; international conventions make the distinction between child "work" and child "labor," i.e. voluntary or forced.

Discounting this government claim, SOAS says the coerced labor is rooted in the state-controlled agricultural system. "Right down to the individual child in the field, there is a system of quotas or orders that stipulate how much cotton should be picked, backed up by sanctions if they are not met," says SOAS. "The primacy of national and regional targets for the cotton harvest are public knowledge, and what the survey reveals is the way in which the quotas are further subdivided and enforced right down through the hierarchy of state institutions," SOAS reports. SOAS found through its surveys that the coercion is institutionalized and children are recruited with the knowledge of state authorities:

Once they reach the level of the district authority (raion hokimyat), the survey findings illustrate how the local governor (hokim) then assigns to schools, amongst other public bodies, quotas for harvesting cotton. In some regions this seems to have been mediated by the local education authority (raiono) which oversees the local schools, and in other cases it is perceived to have come directly from the governor’s office (hokimyat). In some cases there appears to be an understanding of an exact quota, in others a more general sense of obligation that the school should be fully mobilized for as long as required. Either way, there is an understanding that the mobilization comes with the full authority of the governor’s office (hokimyat) and backed up by the coercive power of the state”.

In delving into the causes of the ongoing use of child labor, SOAS found the following contributing factors:

1) incomplete agrarian reform that forces farmers to grow crops selected by the state and accept state-dictated quotas
2) a short harvesting season that creates labor bottlenecks at times
3) a sharp decline in farm mechanization since independence;
4) a sharp increase in seasonal or more permanent labor migration from Uzbekistan's rural areas to wealthier nearby countries, mainly Kazakhstan and Russia, inducing both precarious livlihoods and reliance on child labor

In Uzbekistan, the obstacle to ending the worst forms of child labor "is primarily a question of political will," says SOAS, and calls for making the National Plan of Action to implement ILO conventions a policy priority. It also calls for more "sustained dialogue between those engaged in issues of child labor and those engaged in issues of agricultural reform" and points out that reforms involving consolidation of farms could create larger farms that would reduce jobs and also harm the rural poor who rely on their subsistence plots

SOAS Study Reveals Ongoing, Institutionalized Forced Child Labor in Uzbekistan

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