Irrigation for the cotton crop has led to the Aral Sea disaster. The cotton is picked by hand mainly by women, and including child labor. Credit: Chris Shervey

Every September, state-run institutions in Uzbekistan lock their doors and display the words, Hamma pahtada Uzbek for “Everybody’s gone cotton-picking.” As the world’s third largest exporter of raw cotton, Uzbekistan’s cotton exports generate $1 billion in annual revenue. From September to November, the entire country is immersed in what has been described as “cotton hysteria.” The harvesting process, however, institutionalizes a tradition of forced child labor. The Uzbek government has not only failed to comply with the minimum standards of international law, it has also continued to promote child labor to ensure that rising harvesting quotas are met. As a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO), the government of Uzbekistan is legally obliged to bring harvesting practices in line with international standards and could strengthen its compliance with international child labor laws by allowing the ILO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to monitor future harvests.

During harvest season, rural schools are closed and students are sent directly to the fields where they are forced to work thirteen-hour days. Harvesting under police guard, children as young as nine are forced to collect thirty to fifty pounds of cotton a day. Thousands of children between the ages of fifteen and eighteen are loaded onto buses and taken to the fields, where their teachers are held personally responsible for ensuring that quotas are met. Students who refuse to participate are beaten or expelled; teachers who refuse to comply are fired. Young adults enrolling in Uzbek universities are required to sign pledges promising to participate in the harvest. Each year, the Uzbek government denies the ILO’s requests to monitor the harvest; and officials in the Uzbek Prosecutor General’s Office have rejected complaints filed by human rights organizations.

As a member of the ILO since July 13, 1992, Uzbekistan is required by Article 19 of the ILO Constitution to comply with annual reports and recommendations. In 2009, the ILO requested information about labor policies and measures that have been taken to implement Uzbekistan’s legal obligations via international conventions. A year later, the ILO’s Committee on Application of Standards requested to have an ILO supervisory board monitor the harvest. Uzbekistan has not complied with either request.

In addition to an obligation to comply with general ILO requests, Uzbekistan has also availed itself to the Minimum Age Convention (C183) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (C182). C183 requires the minimum employment age to be higher than the age of completion of compulsory schooling, but no less than fifteen years. Children as young as nine are required to participate in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. Further, the convention sets the minimum age for any employment that poses a risk to health or safety at eighteen years, and children between the ages of thirteen and fifteen may only be permitted to obtain employment that does not negatively affect their attendance at school. By closing rural schools and requiring children to harvest cotton, Uzbekistan is failing to comply with these provisions. C182 expressly prohibits any form of forced or compulsory labor for children under the age of eighteen. Every member state is bound, as a matter of top priority, to implement programs to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. Uzbekistan has failed to comply with its obligations by requiring children between the ages of nine and seventeen to participate in the harvest.

The Uzbek government is also bound by the recommendations of UNICEF and its commitments to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Uzbekistan acceded to the CRC on June 29, 1994, thereby agreeing that no governing body would act in a way contrary to the best interests of children. States Parties are specifically obliged to protect children from economic exploitation and hazardous work conditions. Uzbekistan has failed to uphold these standards by forcing children to work in dangerous conditions. According to the annual Human Rights Watch report, children working during the harvest are more susceptible to illness due to unsanitary working conditions, exhaustion, hunger, and the heat.

Uzbekistan is legally obligated to bring its harvesting policies in line with international standards dictated by the ILO and UNICEF. To ensure that harvesting policies are in compliance with international law, the Uzbek government must grant the ILO and UNICEF access to monitor future harvests. Until Uzbekistan begins to comply with its international obligations, Uzbek children will continue to be deprived of education, freedom, and childhood.