By Allison Richina, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
Attending to school from eight in the morning until three-thirty in the afternoon for thirteen years may be a never ending thought of “Am I done yet?!,” “I have too much homework,” and “I don’t like my teacher.” Yet, this is a system so accessible to most US students that we often take our access to education for granted. Could you imagine a life without school? Sure! What a great time to enjoy friends, play sports, and do whatever you want!
But what if you were pushed into a world of forced labor? A life with little or no wages and consequently if your work was not done right, beatings? Or the work you perform was done in dangerous or unsupervised conditions? Or you were fed minimal amounts of food with little access to clean drinking water?
Tragic scenario, but a true one. Thousands of children in Uzbekistan are sent by the government to work in cotton fields. This disrupts the education of huge numbers of children during the harvest season. The government is fully aware of the thousands of children that endure unsafe and unhealthy conditions in the Uzbekistan cotton fields and, in fact they use the children to meet their own personal quota. Cotton farmers must sell their crop to the government at the below-market rates that it sets. Once purchased, the government then sells the cotton on the global market for the actual market price.
The conditions in which the children work are appalling, and sometimes lead to injury and death. A report released by the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) found that both children and parents stated that all tenth and eleventh graders that worked in the fields were forced to stay in barracks. One child called the conditions in the barracks “unbearable.” The report stated that the barracks were, “Unheated, uninsulated field barracks, normally used to store crops and/or farm machinery…filthy and flea-infested, while the biting insects prevented [the children inside] from sleeping. Children were fed mostly bread and turnips.”
The people of Uzbekistan are stripped of their rights and dignity as people. In the fields, children are supplied with a minimal amount of food, which they often have to pay for, and have little access to clean drinking water. The lack of clean drinking water and proper food has led to serious health risks including gastroenteritis and hepatitis. There is little or no medical services provided to either the children or teachers. School administrators are under the pressure of Uzbek government as well. The pressure is carried out through police and prosecutor’s office, and the provincial education department, with the provincial governor office. The people of Uzbekistan are forced into a harmful cycle for the benefit of their government.
Unfortunately on June 27, 2011, the US Department of State failed to downgrade Uzbekistan to Tier 3 in its annual Trafficking in Persons report which highlights countries that do not fully comply with the minimum standards in addressing forced and child labor and are not making any efforts to do so. In a press release, Brian Campbell of the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) states, “The US Government must do everything in its power to push for an end to forced child labor in Uzbekistan, beginning with an ILO mission to observe to country’s quickly approaching fall harvest season.”
The press release also stated, after finding that the government of Uzbekistan continues to force its citizens to harvest cotton for the government through a rigid quota system, the State Department chose not to downgrade Uzbekistan stating that it was their belief that Uzbekistan “has a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is devoting sufficient resources to implement that plan.” The overwhelming problem is that the government continues to deny the problem while at the same time forces children across the state to leave school and pick cotton during harvest times.
ILRF is working to urge the Uzbek government to put an immediate end to this brutal practice. On June 28, 2011, ILRF and a number of organizations wrote a letter to Secretary Clinton expressing a continued concern over the widespread use of forced child labor in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan. Click here to see the letter.
The basic right to an education seems so obvious, but for thousands of children the opportunity to attend school has been snatched away by a ruthless, selfish, exploitative system of forced child labor.