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Out Of The Uzbek Cotton Fields, On To The Scrap Yard

Freed from working in the cotton fields, Uzbek children are now able to turn to more gainful forced labor -- like meeting school quotas for collecting scrap paper and metal.

Schoolchildren in central Uzbekistan are involved in the collection effort as part of a state-imposed recycling plan overseen by regional and local education authorities.

The father of a second-grader in Jizzakh region told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service on condition of anonymity that his 8-year-old son was not allowed to go to school because he had not fulfilled his quota.

"Children from first to third grade have to bring in 30 kilograms of scrap metal each," said the parent, whose son attends School No. 14 in the Mirzachul district. "Older grades are required to fulfil the 43-kilogram norm. They are turned back if it is even 1 kilogram less."

He said efforts to discuss the issue with his son's teacher were fruitless because the order came directly from the school principal, but "one can never find the principal."

"What should we do?" he asked. "Should our children abandon the school?

School and local officials have denied that children are involved in the collection efforts in Mirzachul. But in recent months, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service has reported on a number of instances of forced recycling involving school students.

In one case parents of a kindergartner in Jizzakh region claimed they were required to collect scrap metal on behalf of their children. In January, there were reports of students being ordered by their teachers to haul loads of recycled paper destined for use by state organizations. Those who did not comply were threatened with expulsion.

Children in other regions of the country have also been reportedly used in efforts to collect plastic bottles for private businesses, or manure for farmers.

The father of the Mizachul district schoolboy said the issue is nothing new -- quotas for scrap-metal collection have been imposed on schoolchildren for years, he said, it's just that rights organizations were preoccupied with the use of child labor in Uzbekistan's cotton industry.

He recalled seeing schoolchildren swarming in like "a flock of crows rushing in to pick insects on a freshly plowed field" when a villager cleared out an old dump.

"He hired a bulldozer to clear out the area and believe it or not dozens of children chased the bulldozer and collected the scrap metal," he said. "The children were all dirty after the undertaking. I asked them what they were doing and they said that very soon they would be required to collect scrap metal and they were preparing for it, otherwise it would be difficult to find."

Metal For Construction Work

When contacted by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service the principal of School No. 14, Bozorboy Rahmonov, confirmed that a scrap-collection plan was imposed by the Mirzachul district's Department of Education. However, Rahmonov denied that schoolchildren were involved.

"There is 5,200-kilogram (5.2 metric tons) scrap-metal goal for our school, but only the teachers are involved in it. The school will be paid for fulfilling the plan," Rahmonov said. "Last year I bought chairs for classrooms. Well, it is true schoolchildren helped last year, but this time I strictly instructed that no children be involved."

Scrap metal is collected under a special decree of the Uzbek government that imposes quotas on state organizations, education and healthcare institutions, and private farmers.

The recycled metal from the Jizzakh region is taken to a major metallurgical plant in the neighboring region of Tashkent, according to Mirzachul district Deputy Governor Ashir Akbutaev. In a telephone interview the official said his district must collect 550 tons of scrap metal this year, but he too categorically denied children are being used in the campaign.

"The assignment is not given to children, it is to the district Department of Education, which involves school staff," he said. "But there are no cases in which schoolchildren are involved in this task."

What is collected is taken to the metallurgical plant, where it is used to produce metal fittings for construction works in Uzbekistan, he added.

In past years, Uzbekistan has been linked to numerous questionable labor practices involving children, often related to the cotton harvest.

Human rights activists in and outside Uzbekistan drew international attention to the issue of child labor being used in the sowing and harvesting of cotton. The outcry resulted in boycotts of Uzbek cotton by major retailers, including Walmart, Tesco, H&M, and others.

As a result, in 2013, the government of Uzbekistan for the first time allowed observers from the International Labor Organization to monitor the annual cotton harvest.

Despite some instances of children being observed working in the cotton fields, the ILO concluded, the government had demonstrated political will to address the issue and significant progress was made.

However, the practice of using forced labor during cotton season continues, prompting criticism by Human Rights Watch and other groups. Educators are among the millions believed to be mobilized every year by the Uzbek government.

Away from the cotton fields, in 2014 RFE/RL reported that educators in the Uzbek capital were being required to work overnights to make sure school heating systems didn't break down.

According to an order received by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, teachers were be required to call school authorities at least twice during their overnight shift to report on the state of schools' heating systems.

Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Cotton?

Quiz: How Much Do You Know About Cotton?

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    Sadriddin Ashur

    Sadriddin Ashur is a correspondent in RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.

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    Farruh Yusupov

    Farruh Yusupov is the director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service. Before joining the Turkmen Service in 2016, he was an editor in the Uzbek Service and led its journalistic investigations, including a series of reports on corruption involving family members of President Islam Karimov. Farruh also produced radio programs, including Health, The Other Side Of The Coin, and OzodNavigator. He worked for USAID-funded projects in Central Asia before joining RFE/RL in 2004.​

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