Cotton pickers in a field outside Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Photo CC-by-NC-ND-2.0: Matthew Goulding / Flickr. Some rights reserved.Companies around the world involved with the cotton industry have increasingly been feeling pressure to steer clear of crops produced with forced and child labour. Apparently, the World Bank hasn’t gotten the message. It has actually boosted its investments in projects benefiting the large cotton sector in Uzbekistan’s economy, where the government oversees a massive program of forced labour to harvest the crop. In doing so, the World Bank has provided cover for the government’s abuse and created a muddled picture about Uzbekistan’s dismal rights record, even while claiming to support reforms.
European consumers should keep the reality of the situation at the forefront of their minds as they make decisions about buying clothing and household goods made of cotton following a recent European Parliament decision to extend a trade agreement with Uzbekistan to include textiles.
The authorities ordered schools in some areas to force children as young as 10 to pick cotton
In a new report, Human Rights Watch and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights documented forced and child labour in a World Bank project area. The report also casts light on systematic forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector and incidents of state-organised child labour, implicating all of the bank’s public and private sector investments in the country’s agriculture sector. These labour abuses contravene international law, national law, and the government’s own agreements with the World Bank.
In 2015 and 2016 the Uzbek government forced enormous numbers of people to work in its cotton fields. In the spring it required people to plant cotton and weed the fields, typically for no pay. In the autumn, people had to leave their regular jobs, schools, universities, or homes to pick cotton for weeks. The government threatened to fire people, including teachers, medical workers, and other public sector employees, to withhold social welfare benefits, to close down the shops of small-business owners, and to suspend or expel students who refused to do their “duty” to work in the fields. Following government orders, schools in some areas forced children as young as 10 to work in the fields.
A protest against the World Bank’s investment in Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector in 2015. Photo CC-by-2.0: Stephen Melkisethian / Flickr. Some rights reserved.In 2013, the World Bank was belatedly compelled to recognise the problem of forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry after victims complained that a bank investment was perpetuating these abuses. The bank’s internal accountability body found that the investment in question, which funded farmers and agribusinesses through commercial banks, may be helping perpetuate the use of forced and child labour. Rather than setting preconditions to convince the government to end this practice prior to it investing, the bank increased its investments in the agriculture industry to about half a million Euros.
The bank adopted measures to “mitigate” the risk of forced and child labour that were doomed to fail. It tapped the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to monitor bank projects. But the final arrangement resulted in the Uzbek government being intimately involved in monitoring even though it is the government that is forcing people to work in the fields. Unsurprisingly, in both 2015 and 2016, the ILO monitoring scheme did not identify forced or child labour in World Bank project areas, though it noted indicators of forced labor in 2015 and the ongoing risk of forced labor in 2016.
The World Bank has done a great service to those in the Uzbek government who want to use forced labour
Meanwhile, 274 companies worldwide have responded to the international campaign about the use of forced and child labour in Uzbekistan by boycotting its cotton sector. On the other hand, the European Parliament, ostensibly relying in part on the credibility of the ILO monitoring, went ahead and extended a trade agreement with Uzbekistan to include textiles in December 2016.
Following the 2015 cotton harvest, when the government abusively cracked down on activists who documented forced labour in the cotton fields, the World Bank continued to reward the Uzbek government. In December 2015, the bank’s private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation, agreed to loan Indorama Kokand Textile, one of Uzbekistan’s leading cotton yarn producers, $35.8 million Euros to expand its textile plant.
Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the president of Uzbekistan. Despite high hopes for reform following the death of his predecessor Islam Karimov in 2016, the country remains highly authoritarian and many violations of human rights endure. Photo: kremlin.ru. Some rights reserved.The World Bank has done a great service to those in the Uzbek government who want to use forced labour instead of attracting voluntary pickers by paying a fair wage and improving working conditions. But that is a great disservice to people living in poverty, whom the World Bank says it exists in order to serve.
European Union governments should use their significant stake in the World Bank and the IFC, with a combined voting share just shy of a third, to ensure that the projects in Uzbekistan linked to these labour abuses are halted immediately, and only resumed once the forced labour system is dismantled. Furthermore, the European Parliament must reverse its decision in light of this recent evidence and only open its doors to cotton products from Uzbekistan once the government has entirely ceased using forced and child labour to plant and harvest cotton.