Uzbekistan: Schools Grind to a Halt as Staff Pick Cotton
Pupils miss out on lessons as teachers go off to the fields.
Teachers joined other white-collar workers in the army of free labour used to pick cotton in Uzbekistan this autumn, creating a troubling gap in the school year.
In 2012, the Uzbek authorities said they would ban the use of child labour in the cotton industry, following a five-year boycott by major Western clothing manufacturers and retailers. Uzbekistan is the world’s sixth-largest producer of cotton, with a harvest of around 3.5 million tons a year.
While younger children appear to have been exempted from forced labour this year, there were reports that high-school pupils aged 15 to 18 were sent out to the fields together with university and college students and public-sector workers. The latter included teachers who were forced to leave the classroom to help with the harvest, unless they could buy their way out by paying someone else to take their place.
An official from the Tashkent regional education department, who asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR that schools and other public institutions had received orders to dispatch staff to the harvest due to the perennial shortage of farmworkers in peak season.
“Half the teaching staff in schools has been mobilised. It’s an important government task, so everyone has to go,” the official said, adding that each teacher had to work for between 20 and 25 days and deliver a daily quota of up to 65 kilogrammes of raw cotton.
School administrators resorted to various tactics to fill the gap. Some teachers had to teach classes in subjects for which they were not qualified, while others juggled more than one lesson at a time. In many instances, pupils simply missed out on schooling for nearly a month.
Human rights activist Yelena Urlaeva and her colleagues have been monitoring the annual use of forced labour. She described the burden facing teachers at one village school in the Chirchik district, near Tashkent.
“The teachers complained that it was very difficult for them to do long hours at school as substitutes for absent colleagues, and then [when their turn came] work in the fields picking cotton,” she said.
A maths teacher at a school in the city of Angren told IWPR that she was asked to teach practical subjects like sewing and woodwork to cover for an absent colleague.
“I give the children assignments and then return to my own class where I teach mathematics,” she said.
To cope with the absences, some schools introduced two shifts, which helped prevent children sitting unattended but considerably increased the hours staff had to work.
In one village which had only one English language teacher, lessons stopped altogether when she was sent to pick cotton. Children were told they would have to catch up by taking after-school classes on her return.
At another school in Angren, the administrators enlisted the help of a stay-at-home mother who agreed to come in and teach Russian.
“The children aren’t going to learn anything,” one of the teachers at this school said. “It’s being done so that it looks like they are attending lessons.”
Some teachers managed to pay someone else to take their place. They hired workers from impoverished agricultural areas where unemployment is high, for example the Ferghana Valley in eastern Uzbekistan.
Because she works at a private rather than a state school, one teacher was told she would have to repay the cost of lessons that would have to be cancelled during her absence – valued at over 300 US dollars. She found it cheaper to pay someone 200 dollars to do her share of the picking.
In Angren, parents clubbed together to hire a harvest worker so as to avoid losing a teacher and having their children miss out on classes.
“We parents decided that it would better for the teacher not to go picking cotton,” one mother said.
Urlaeva described how in one village in Tashkent region, teachers were initially told to collect money to hire substitute labour. But the school management was later ordered to send the staff to the cotton fields anyway.
She said that by continuing to use forced labour, the Uzbek government was violating the international Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour, as well as agreements guaranteeing children’s access to education.