The Centre for Contemporary Central Asia and the Caucasus, School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) has just published report a new report (pdf) on forced child labor in the cotton harvests of Central Asia. It focuses on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, seeking to determine whether either country has made progress in fulfilling its pledges to stop conscripting children to pick cotton.
The results of the survey are about what you would expect: since their last survey in 2008, the situation in Uzbekistan is largely unchanged, with broad participation by children at all stages of the cotton harvest. In Tajikistan participation was generally limited to children over 14, though in both countries children of a frighteningly young age were, in essence, conscripted to work the fields.
The big debate that emerges here whenever we bring up the issue of Uzbek children in particular picking cotton is whether the activity is forced or voluntary, and how one goes about telling the difference. I suspect this study won’t move people’s opinions too much, even though it shows there is almost no indication that Uzbek children are given a choice as to whether or not to participate in the cotton harvest. In Tajikistan, the harvest is structured around the school day and generally limited to weekends, but there remains little agency among children as to whether or not to participate.
The last significant portion of the report deals with the harmful effects of forced labor on children. Again, conditions in Uzbekistan are much worse than in Tajikistan, with reports of poor access to water and food common.
As far as what anyone can do about it, the report punts, in a way. The structural conditions that make conscripting children so attractive have not changed significantly, so the SOAS team doesn’t see much reason to expect substantial improvement anytime soon. As with so many things, the institutions and environment have as much to do with it as any individual choice; without changing those, we really can’t expect to see any progress.