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Cotton Campaign Urges Investigation to End Forced Labor in Uzbekistan

The Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights organizations, trade unions, socially responsible investors and business organizations united to end forced labor in the Uzbekistan cotton industry, said on Wednesday that the World Bank’s internal watchdog should investigate whether bank projects are contributing to forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.

The campaign echoed calls that independent Uzbek groups made in a 2014 letter to the Inspection Panel. The panel will decide by Dec. 19 whether existing bank projects benefit the forced labor system in which authorities on Uzbekistan force over a million citizens each year to pick cotton against their will.

The Cotton Campaign explained on its website, “Threats of expulsion from school keep children in the fields despite the hazardous nature of the work and receiving little or no financial benefit. Adults are threatened with the loss of employment, pensions and child benefits if they refuse to work. The coercion used to ensure that children and adults participate in the cotton harvest stems directly from regional and local government officials.”

Umida Niyazova, Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights director, added, “The World Bank has an obligation to ensure that it does not contribute to forced labor or other human rights violations in its activities. 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.”

As a response to complaints from several independent Uzbek groups last year, the panel concluded that as long as bank financing is supporting cotton production to some extent with a possibility that there can be child and forced labor on the farms receiving project support, then it’s plausible that the project can contribute to the continuation of child and forced labor.

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In the past year, the World Bank has hardly made progress in addressing labor abuses in Uzbekistan and has not worked with the country’s government to get to the root of the forced labor.

Jessica Evans, senior international financial institutions researcher at Human Rights Watch, said, “The World Bank’s proposals fall short in Uzbekistan, where forced labor in the cotton sector is uniquely government-orchestrated and supported by repressing independent groups. The World Bank needs to ensure that independent groups and journalists can monitor World Bank projects and report forced labor without fear of reprisal.”

The forced labor system within the Uzbek government is essentially a violation of international law. Activists have documented that the government’s system of coercing farmers to cultivate cotton and obliging children and adults to work on the fields is very much present in 2014.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign coordinator, added, “The World Bank should halt these new projects that support the cotton industry and address the policies underlying forced labor with the Uzbek government.” He concluded, “A thorough investigation by the Inspection Panel would send the right message to the bank that it must ensure it isn’t contributing to forced labor now or in the future and say to Tashkent that the bank will not tolerate such abuses.”