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BISHKEK, Oct 19 2011 (IPS) - A 13-year-old boy has become the latest victim of state-sponsored forced child labour in Uzbekistan as its regime continues to ignore boycotts and international condemnation of its practices during the country’s annual cotton harvest.
Bakhodir Pardaev, from Kashkadarya province in southern Uzbekistan, was left in a coma after suffering horrific injuries when he was run over by a car.
He and other schoolchildren had been returning from cotton fields where they had been sent by authorities to help with the harvest when he was hit.
Like many harvesters, he had been forced to walk a dangerous route to the fields and back home alongside highways.
Rights groups say that the accident is just one of many every year involving children forced into harvesting cotton.
Nadejda Atayeva, an activist working for the Association for Human Rights in Central Asia told IPS: “This is just one in a series of similar traffic accidents associated with the cotton harvest campaign and coercive mobilisation of school children every year.
An estimated one million to 2.5 million children, some as young as 10, are forced to take part in the harvest by authorities every year.
Some are collectively bussed out from towns and villages and put in cramped and unsanitary temporary dormitories which local rights groups say are no more than labour camps.
Uzbekistan is one of the world’s biggest cotton exporters, shipping out 850,000 tons per year. Its cotton industry is worth more than a billion dollars annually and its harvest is a matter of national economic priority.
But more than 90 percent of the harvest is carried out by hand, and state authorities organise the use of child labour en masse to ensure quotas are met.
Schools, colleges, and universities are closed for months every cotton season under the approval of state education authorities.
Families who refuse to send their children to pick cotton are threatened with the loss of social benefits, gas, water and electricity supplies, and their children face exclusion from schools and colleges.
For more than a decade human rights groups have campaigned against the use of child labour in the harvest but President Islam Karimov’s dictatorial regime has repeatedly reneged on promises to stamp out the practice.
Tashkent has signed up to international agreements outlawing child labour and has officially said that children have not taken part in the harvest since 2008.
But many groups claim they are still being forced to pick cotton. UNICEF representatives in Uzbekistan have told IPS that as many as one million children were mobilised to work in the last cotton harvest.
IPS has also been sent documents by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights showing official press releases from provincial authorities sent out to local media and community leaders outlining the mass mobilisation of tens of thousands of college students and school children for this year’s harvest.
Uzbekistan refuses to allow monitoring teams from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) into the country.
But the issue has come to the attention of major Western companies.
Last month global retailers such as Walmart, Walt Disney, H&M and Adidas announced they had joined a boycott on products using Uzbek cotton. More than 60 major international firms have now signed up to it.
Rights groups have welcomed the support but there is concern that on its own it will be largely ineffective and may not stop Uzbek cotton ending up on retailers’ shelves. Global supply chains which see cotton often exported, processed and then re-exported, mean that the origins of cotton in textile products are often impossible to identify.
Industry experts also say that while western customers may be turning away, there are still plenty of buyers for Uzbek cotton.
The country’s international cotton fair, which was held this month and brought in more than 500 million dollars in cotton deals, was attended by more than 300 companies from around the world – up on last year’s number.
Tashkent has recently embarked on new trading partnerships with a number of other Asian countries, including Pakistan.
In a statement given to Russian media, a government trade official in Tashkent dismissed the boycott as “not something that Uzbekistan will suffer seriously from.”
Rights groups say that international governments and institutions must put more pressure on Uzbekistan to observe international rights commitments.
But there have been ambiguous signals from both Brussels and Washington on relations with Uzbekistan recently.
Earlier this year there was outrage when President Karimov, whose regime has been accused of widespread barbaric human rights abuses, was welcomed in Brussels by European Commission president Jose Barroso.
It emerged soon after that the European Council, the EU’s main decision-making body, had approved a trade protocol granting tariff and customs privileges and free access to European markets for Uzbek textiles.
The new agreement has yet to be voted on by the European Parliament and needs approval by, among others, its international trade committee which is set to decide on the matter next month.
Washington has also been criticised for its relationship with Tashkent. President Obama’s administration is pushing for existing human rights-based restrictions on U.S. assistance, including military aid, to the Uzbek government to be lifted.
The U.S. is currently looking to cement cooperation with Uzbekistan on supply routes to troops in Afghanistan as alternative lines through Pakistan become more unstable.
Rights groups have called for the U.S. restrictions to be kept in place. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement sent to IPS that lifting them would be a “gift to one of the most repressive regimes in Central Asia.”
Atayeva told IPS that Brussels must also send a clear signal to Tashkent over its cotton harvest by completely rejecting the trade protocol for its textiles.
“If this trade protocol is endorsed, textile and cotton from Uzbekistan will obtain tax and tariff preferences in Europe. This will encourage the ruling Uzbek regime to continue its policy of exploiting school children,” she said.
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