TASHKENT, Uzbekistan — Uzbekistan's prime minister pledged last month to end child labor in the country's cotton fields. But as the harvest season gets under way, human rights activists say children as young as 13 are being put to work under grueling conditions, despite extreme measures to recruit adult labor.
"Every year, from the beginning of the first days of September, the entire country is immersed in a cotton hysteria," said Hakim, a human rights activist based in Tashkent, who asked his last name not be used for fear of persecution. "Urban residents are in a panic looking for a way to escape slavery and not be sent to work."
"Rural residents have long been resigned to it, and cotton is seen as an integral part of their lives," he added.
Across the country, state-run institutions from banks to hospitals have closed or are working with skeleton staffs. Posters hang on locked doors, and shuttered windows bear the words "Hamma pahtada," which translates to "Everybody's gone cotton-picking."
Uzbekistan is the world's third-largest exporter of raw cotton, behind the United States and Africa, and generates about $1 billion in annual revenue in exporting the material.
Prime Minister Shankar Mirziyayev has failed to keep his promise to end child labor in the cotton fields, according to human rights observers who monitored working conditions in the countryside.
The Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan has reported seeing children as young as 13, as well as college students, at work in the cotton-growing regions of Jizzakh and Kashkadarya.
"They collect cotton in bad conditions guarded by police," said alliance investigator Elena Urlaevaf. "Local authorities are breaking the government's promise, and school directors sent pupils directly to the fields."
Older children have also been targeted. Those between the age of 15 and 18 have been loaded on to buses by the thousands and taken to the fields. They report working in the baking sun without shade, clean water or adequate food.
"Every day, under police guard, every person is forced to collect 30 to 50 pounds of cotton," said one student of Tashkent Polytechnic College, returning from two-weeks in the fields. "The working day lasted from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Students [falling short of their targets] were insulted and humiliated by teachers."
University students enrolling this year say they have been obliged to sign documents committing themselves to pick cotton if called on.
"I signed this receipt," said Sanjar, a student at the National University of Uzbekistan in Tashkent.
"The dean said that those who do not sign them could be dismissed. This may well be happen because universities in Uzbekistan completely corrupt and students can not protect their rights."
Local authorities in cotton-growing regions are obliged to harvest a set quota of cotton set by the Ministry of Labor, and officials who fail to meet their quotas can face stiff penalties that range from instant dismissal to prison terms.
The result is that municipal institutions — including schools, universities and hospitals — are assigned fields to harvest, and everyone from doctors to students is compelled to pick cotton.
"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.