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There is an empty seat in a first-grade classroom in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, where 6-year-old Amirbek Rakhmatov should be sitting. He died on September 15, according to Uzbek provincial officials, suffocating under a load of cotton as he slept in a trailer near the cotton fields. Amirbek had entered first grade a few weeks earlier. But rather than learning to read, Amirbek and his fellow students, along with over a million children and adults across Uzbekistan, were mobilized this month to participate in the state-controlled harvest of cotton, Uzbekistan’s cash crop.
Uzbekistan expects to produce 3.35 million tons of cotton this year, making it the world’s sixth largest producer and second largest exporter. Yet Uzbeks don’t share their government’s enormous profits. Instead, they suffer massive abuses.
Authorities force schoolchildren and adults – including teachers, doctors, and nurses – to harvest cotton in terrible conditions on threat of punishment. Workers live in the fields for weeks at a time, in filthy barracks without access to safe drinking water. They miss work or school and often get sick as they try to meet daily quotas for picking cotton, for little to no pay.
Amirbek’s tragic fate is only the latest case of an injury or death. In October 2011, for example, a tractor ran over “Nodir N.,” a university student, as he left a cotton field in the evening darkness. Although the exact circumstances of the death are unclear, witnesses reported that he had been suffering exhaustion just before the accident.
Amirbek’s death is a bitter irony given that this year, following international pressure, Tashkent agreed to allow the International Labour Organization (ILO) to monitor its compliance with its supposed ban on child labor. The ILO monitors need to take such incidents seriously and remain fully independent of the Uzbek government. Equally important, they should focus not only on the presence of children in the fields but on the practice of forced labor that allows such tragedies to occur year after year.