As late as 10 p.m. on a weekday, girls aged from five to 15 mill around outside the Street 77 restaurant in northwest Tashkent trying to sell packets of tissues and bracelets to passersby.
“This one suits you,” says one girl, pressing beads into the hands of a potential buyer.
Karina, who is eight years old, often misses classes. She sells anywhere up to 20 tissue packets and maybe eight bracelets in a days’ work, she told a Eurasianet correspondent.
Restaurants and fast-food cafes are a magnet for underage hawkers. Diners will often give money out of pity, without buying.
In its reporting on the strides made by Uzbekistan’s government in eradicating the use of underage laborers to pick cotton, the International Labor Organization last year said that around 2 million children were no longer being made to go work in the fields.
Child labor remains, however, a common feature of life in Uzbekistan, even though it is against the law. If the government keeps any statistics on the scale of this persisting phenomenon, it has not made the figures public.
Shodia is one of the group of children that clusters around the Golden Life shopping mall in Tashkent’s Sergeli district, selling trinkets and begging. When she was approached by a Eurasianet correspondent in mid-January, she was wearing only a thin pink jacket to keep her warm in the -9 degree Celsius (16 degrees Fahrenheit) weather. Asked if she went to school, Shodia said she did not yet, as she is only six years old.
“My parents are gone,” Shodia said, shivering from the cold. “I live with grandma. I need money for food. Whatever you buy, I’ll buy food with the money.”
A cleaner at the shopping mall told Eurasianet that she spots Shodia selling her scant wares every day.
Stories are legion of young people needing to either miss school or use the time they might otherwise be spending on study and play at a place of work.
Odilbek, 14, works in a tire repair shop in the Zangiota district, on the southwest outskirts of Tashkent. He helps his uncle by doing small jobs, like filling tires with air. It is common to see young teens across Uzbekistan working in tire shops.
“This tire shop belongs to my older brother,” Odilbek’s mother, Karima Obidova, told Eurasianet. “My husband and I divorced four years ago. He barely provides any support except for the small alimony payments. I didn’t want my children to live with an alcoholic father, so I decided to get a divorce.”
Obidova said that her son is far from the only person his age working in their neighborhood. Especially when the summer comes, children in rural areas do as much as their parents in tending to fields and livestock. Another of Obidova’s children does some work too.
“My oldest daughter helps me sell milk. I buy milk from the homes where they have cows and I take it to market. My daughter gathers the milk from the homes in my place when I must go out early,” she said.
But Obidova said she is striving to make sure her children do not miss out on an education.
“My children do not skip classes. They work after school. On Sundays, they don't work at all. I go to the market alone,” she said. “I definitely want my children to study well and have an easier and more profitable life in the future. I don’t have an education; I am just a milk-seller. I don’t want my kids to go through what I went through.”
Madina Ochilova, a lawyer and a civil society activist, described the situation with child labor as mixed. While in some instances, there is clear exploitation, it is common, as with Odilbek, that families cannot afford to take on hired adult labor or that the children are supplementing a meager family income.
“It often happens that a minor is forced to look for work due to difficult family circumstances,” Ochilova said.
Ochilova said the problem is inextricably linked to the state’s lack of systemic support for low-income families.
Hard-up parents can apply to the authorities to receive allowances of anywhere between $10 and $33 per child per month. Families are eligible to apply for an additional $36 overall. But where breadwinners are on the minimum wage, which is around $90 in Uzbekistan, that all makes for a meager total.
Ochilova argued that there is a law-enforcement aspect to be considered too.
Children plying goods on the street is tantamount to panhandling in Ochilova’s view. Inveigling minors into begging has been a criminal offense since 2019, but since the children are ostensibly selling things, not panhandling, police are unable to charge parents on that basis, Ochilova said.
“As a rule, the parents of these children are always somewhere close to them, and if you enter into verbal contact with such children, either someone will come up to you, or the child themselves will try to run away or tell you some terrible story about a grandmother, a grandfather, a sick mother, and so on,” Ochilova said.
The worst penalty that a parent sending their children onto the streets to sell goods can usually face is a fine for improperly fulfilling their parental duties.
“The fine for this offense is very small, so they are not afraid,” Ochilova said.
The broader point here is that Uzbekistan as yet has weak provisions and structures in place for the protection of children against adult violence and intimidation.
“There are no non-governmental, non-profit organizations in Uzbekistan that protect the rights of children and fight against early child labor,” Ochilova said.
And that is not to say that activists are not ready and willing to help children – many of them are doing so in an informal manner already. But by making the process of registering an NGO so complicated, the government is preventing the formation of legally authorized civil society groups that can raise money and directly address child welfare issues.
“We applied three times to create various NGOs, but each time we were refused for different reasons,” Ochilova said of her own initiative group.
Recalcitrance on this matter has long been an object of frustration for people in the advocacy sector.
“The government of Uzbekistan is not indifferent to the topic of child labor,” Steve Swerdlow, an experienced human rights lawyer who lectures at the University of Southern California, told Eurasianet. “But there is no proper understanding of what the contribution of child protection is. Uzbekistan should stop directly blocking the registration of critical independent organizations.”
As things stand, when children found working or begging are caught up in the system, they are placed in Interior Ministry centers until their fate can be decided. The general public has little knowledge of what happens in these places, whose operations are carried out away from scrutiny.
In any event, the authorities have limited ability to detect cases of children’s rights being violated. There are at present around 2,000 people employed as juvenile affairs inspectors with the Interior Ministry. Meanwhile, according to the most recent estimates from the State Statistics Committee, there are around 10.5 million children under age 15 in Uzbekistan.
"Why do we see so many children begging on the streets? Why do we still see children working until a certain age?” Ochilova asked. “We have to conclude that the problem is in the system. To solve it positively, it is necessary to at least increase the number of employees who are tasked with solving these questions.”