Uzbekistan drops use of students, teachers, nurses as cotton-pickers: PM

JARKUDUK, Uzbekistan (Reuters) - Uzbekistan will no longer have thousands of students, teachers and healthcare workers pick the cotton harvest, Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov said on Saturday, confirming a halt to a practice condemned abroad as forced labor.

Government officials and other sources told Reuters earlier this week the Central Asian nation, one of the world’s leading cotton exporters, had abruptly withdrawn students, teachers and medical workers from the autumn harvest.

“It’s forever,” Aripov said when asked by reporters whether the government had pulled students and state employees from the fields only for the current harvest rather than for good. “Students should study, state employees should work,” he said.

Officially, the harvest work has been voluntary and paid at about $0.005 per kilogram. In reality those who refuse risk expulsion or dismissal from their jobs unless they bribe an official or hire someone to work in their place, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The move dovetailed with reforms undertaken by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev in the tightly ruled, former Soviet republic since veteran strongman leader Islam Karimov’s death a year ago.

Mirziyoyev has moved to liberalize foreign exchange and travel regulations and had about 16,000 people struck off a blacklist of potential extremists, reforms that may help him rebuild ties with the West and attract foreign investment.

Despite ending the use of child labor in 2015 under international pressure including boycott campaigns, Uzbekistan ranked among the top five worst offenders in the Global Slavery Index compiled last year by activist group Walk Free Foundation.

The foundation estimated that almost 4 percent of the Uzbek population - 31 million - lived in “modern slavery,” placing he country second only to North Korea in that category.

Reporting by Olesya Astakhova; writing by Denis Pinchuk; editing by Mark Heinrich