Uzbekistan: UNICEF Circumspect about Child Labor
"Speaking Cotton," a film by Stefanie Trambow and Erik Malchow, portrays the ongoing exploitation of children in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, with interviews of children as young as 11. The repeated scenes of large groups of children with their teachers, hunched over plucking cotton bolls for months, let us know this isn't about family farming, but a state-sanctioned program.
NGOs such as the Uzbek-German Forum For Human Rights and the Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan published numerous reports last fall exposing the persistent practice of removing children from school and forcing them to work long hours harvesting cotton.
Yet UNICEF has had a hard time publicly validating and condemning the practice, the most widespread form of child exploitation in Uzbekistan. The subject isn't mentioned on UNICEF's website for Uzbekistan, and you have to dig to the bottom of the last page of a thrice-yearly newsletter not available on the site to find a single paragraph on forced child labor in Uzbekistan:
During the period of 17 to 22 September 2011, 6 teams consisting of 14 UNICEF staff members visited cotton fields in Fergana, Namangan, Andijan, Navoi, Bhukara, Khorezm, Karakalpakstan, Samarkand, Jizzak, Tashkent, Surkhandarya, and Kashkadarya regions. UNICEF’s observations regarding the use of children in the cotton fields were shared in the form of an update and a final report with the Cabinet of Ministers and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. UNICEF continues to act and advocate at all levels of governance and society for the progressive elimination of child labour in cotton production.
The statement is couched in cautious terms so as not to actually make a formal finding or a condemnation about forced child labor. UNICEF doesn't want to risk losing its office registration in Uzbekistan, in a climate where many international organizations have been kicked out.
Instead, UNICEF prefers to speak in positive terms about the "progressive elimination" of child labor, and has set as a target for 2015: "Attendance of children in school during cotton harvesting season ensured for all children."
The Foreign Ministry of Uzbekistan announced January 10 that officials met with Jean-Michel Delmotte, the UNICEF representative in Tashkent to discuss joint projects and further cooperation under the 2010-2015 program, ca-news.org reported. UNICEF is planning to increase funding of its projects, said the Foreign Ministry.
But nothing was said about child labor. Under the terms of the agreement with the government of Uzbekistan, UNICEF does not make public its findings. A number of alleged cables revealed by WikiLeaks last year contain accounts of meetings in previous years between UNICEF representatives and US Embassy officials in Tashkent, where they do admit widespread forced child labor.
UNICEF has made clear last September that its own partial observations are not a substitute for full-fledged monitoring by the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO has not been able to gain permission to enter Uzbekistan to inspect the cotton fields during the harvest.
The Uzbek government said last June that special working groups would be formed to monitor child labor from existing official farmers' and labor organizations and the Ministry of Labor and Social Security. Nothing has been heard of them since, and officials denied that private farmers would have any need for massive recruitment of children.