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Uzbek government breaks promise to end child labor in cotton fields
“Since the beginning of the [fall] semester at our school, 40 percent of teachers were sent to pick cotton,” said Anastasia, an elementary school teacher in Tashkent. “Their place is taken by all the available staff. Physical education classes are taken by the security team, and the remaining teachers work with the triple burden.”
Many also said that the number of minors picking cotton appears to be lower than in previous years, and the government has taken extreme measures to make up the shortfall in labor.
Uzbek blogs and social networking sites have buzzed with reports of police detaining people who fail to carry identification documents, as required by law for Uzbek citizens as well as immigrant. The authorities send them directly to the cotton fields. Drivers of unlicensed taxis and trucks have suffered the same fate at the hands of traffic police.
Under Soviet rule, this Central Asian nation was subject to a policy of “cotton mono-culture,” with the vast majority of arable land and Uzbek farmers employed in the production of the so-called “white gold.”
Intensive farming to keep up with yield targets dictated by Moscow had a devastating environmental impact, virtually draining the Aral Sea, once one of the world’s largest lakes, now less than 10 percent of its former size, analysts say.
Cotton continued to be one of Uzbekistan’s most important revenue sources after the country gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and adopted a national coat of arms framed by cotton branches. In 2011, the country produced 3.5 million tons of cotton, bringing in $550 million, according to government figures.
Little of that wealth trickles down to those who grow the crop, observers say. Farmers are compelled to sell cotton to state-owned companies at a fixed price. It is and then sold on the world market through wholesalers controlled by the state or owned by members of a minority elite close to President Islam Karimov and his family.
This year the government is paying around $266 for a ton of cotton. With one worker able to pick around 100 pounds a day and the cost of growing to be taken into account, there is very little to pay willing adult workers.
• The reporter, based in Tashkent, has requested anonymity for fear of government reprisals. Ruby Russell in Berlin contributed to this report.
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