Uzbek authorities forcibly mobilise more than a million citizens each year to pick cotton

Uzbek authorities forcibly mobilise more than a million citizens each year to pick cotton

The World Bank's internal watchdog is being urged to investigate whether its projects are contributing to the use of forced labour in in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan.

Independent Uzbek groups last month sent a letter to the World Bank Inspection Panel, which will tomorrow (19 December) decide whether existing bank projects benefit the forced labour system under which Uzbek authorities forcibly mobilise more than a million citizens each year to pick cotton.

"The World Bank has an obligation to ensure that it does not contribute to forced labour or other human rights violations in its activities," says Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights, which is in turn a member of the Cotton Campaign. "The Inspection Panel has the crucial role of holding the bank to account and it can't do that by giving the bank a free pass for egregious abuses."

In response to a similar complaint last year, the Inspection Panel found that "as long as Bank financing is supporting in some measure cotton production and there is a residual possibility that there can be child/forced labour on farms receiving project support (since they do not allegedly have a choice of whether to accept child or forced labour), then it is plausible that the [Rural Enterprise Support] Project can contribute to perpetuating the harm of child and forced labour."

However, it delayed by a year any decision on whether to investigate, to give the World Bank time to establish labour standards monitoring and address the policies underlying forced labour and child labour.

The Cotton Campaign now says the World Bank has made little progress in addressing labour abuses in Uzbekistan, and has not worked with the Uzbek government to address the root causes of forced labour.

Instead, it suggests the bank has relied on project-level mitigation measures, despite protests these measures would not prevent bank financing from being linked to the government's centralised system of forced labour. The World Bank has expanded its agriculture portfolio, for instance also investing in an irrigation project that will benefit the cotton industry.

The campaigners instead want the World Bank to halt new projects that support the cotton industry and address the policies underlying forced labour with the Uzbek government.