Public and private sector employees, as well as some college and university students have been forced to pick cotton involuntarily

Public and private sector employees, as well as some college and university students have been forced to pick cotton involuntarily

There are calls for the World Bank to acknowledge violations in its loan agreements to Uzbekistan after the country's government was found to have forced private and public sector workers to pick cotton, despite recent reforms.

A report published by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), a German-based NGO, details evidence of a state-sponsored system of forced labour in all regions it monitored during the 2017 harvest. Under pressure of a quota production system, local officials were found to have continued to force people to pick cotton with little accountability.

Throughout 2017, Uzbekistan saw significant political change, including on forced labour in the cotton fields. At the UN General Assembly in September, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev acknowledged for the first time publicly the issue of forced labour in the country. The next day, World Bank President Jim Kim raised the issue of forced labour with Mirziyoyev. Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov followed this up by recalling university students and some public sector workers who had been forced to work in the cotton fields.

The Government also increased wages paid to pickers, called on people to use feedback mechanisms to report forced labour and extortion, and held meetings with civil society activists.

However, the quota system for cotton production, a fundamental root cause of forced labour, remained in place in 2017, according to the 96-page report, 'We Pick Cotton Out of Fear: Systematic Forced Labor and the Accountability Gap in Uzbekistan.'

While many cotton pickers voluntarily participate in the cotton harvest to earn money, hokims (regional and district governors personally responsible for meeting their quota), do not have sufficient resources to attract enough voluntary labour. As a result, they resort to drawing involuntary labour from the sectors over which they exert enormous influence, such as public sector institutions, mahallas – or urban divisions – and businesses.

In particular, the report says education and medical workers, other public sector employees, private sector workers, people receiving benefits, and some college and university students were forced to pick cotton involuntarily. Citizens could only avoid picking cotton if they paid for a replacement worker to pick for them. The Uzbek-German Forum documented "unprecedented levels" of extortion of money from citizens to pay for replacement workers and cotton.

World Bank has funded a number of projects in Uzbekistan, including for the improvement of irrigation, on the condition the Uzbek Government comply with national and international laws prohibiting forced labour and child labour. It can suspend its loans if there is credible evidence of violations.

UGF is now calling on the Bank to acknowledge the violation of its loan agreements because of "credible evidence of forced labour in its project area that is grounds for suspension." The NGO suggests an action plan should be agreed to "bring the government into compliance with its commitments."

Similarly, it calls on the Government to take immediate action to ensure the end of systematic forced labour by the 2018 cotton harvest and undertake a process of reform to establish a culture of accountability and prevention for forced labour.

"To achieve this goal, the Government should commit to a comprehensive roadmap, including time-bound credible, measurable, and accountable steps to implement sustainable and irreversible structural and operational progress on the ground."

Such a roadmap, it says, should include: reform of the agricultural system, including ending the quota system; legal and policy changes to alter recruitment practices, protect fundamental labour rights, and ensure work is voluntary and fairly compensated; increase financial transparency; improve engagement with civil society; and establish a culture of accountability to allow for independent investigations and to hold officials to account for forced labour.

Further, the report suggests the International Labour Organization (ILO) should cease providing a monitoring role for the World Bank, "instead focusing on the promotion of fundamental labour rights and decent work for all."

In February, a report by the ILO said child labour was no longer an issue in Uzbekistan's cotton harvest, and that forced labour was being systematically addressed.