Campaigners have handed a petition to the World Bank urging it to suspend funding for agricultural projects in Uzbekistan until Tashkent roots out forced labor in the cotton harvest.
A petition addressed to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and signed by 140,000 people was delivered to the institution’s Washington HQ on March 9, said the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of advocacy groups.
On the same day, one human rights group released a damning report documenting allegedly systematic use of forced labor during last year’s cotton harvest.
“To harvest cotton, officials once again forced more than a million people, including students, teachers, doctors, nurses, and employees of government agencies and private businesses to the cotton fields, against their will and under threat of penalty, especially losing their jobs,” the report by the Berlin-based Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF) stated.
The World Bank press office told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail that the organization “does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously the reports of such practices in the cotton production system of Uzbekistan.”
“Over the past 2-3 years, the Bank has maintained an intensive dialogue with the Government of Uzbekistan on issues related to child and forced labor in the cotton sector. During this period, the authorities introduced changes to the national legal framework related to the protection of the rights of workers and the prohibitions on child and forced labor,” the World Bank said.
However, the UGF’s report, entitled The Cover-Up: Whitewashing Uzbekistan’s White Gold, found that “instead of good faith efforts to reform, the government appeared to double down on coercion” and cited repeated instances of violence and intimidation against independent monitors seeking to document practices in the cotton fields.
“A powerful climate of fear pervaded the harvest season and facilitated the government’s forced mobilization of workers,” it said, quoting interviews with cotton pickers who spoke of direct or implicit threats if they refused to work, “most crucially that they would lose their jobs.”
Meanwhile, Tashkent made “significant efforts to project the appearance of cooperation with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and to claim compliance with its commitments to the World Bank to apply labor laws,” the UGF said.
The bank says its agricultural projects in Uzbekistan — worth some $500 million in funding, according to the Cotton Campaign — contain provisions prohibiting child and forced labor, with monitoring mechanisms in place. Any project participants found in breach will have loans terminated, it says.
Last year, the ILO deployed a monitoring team to examine Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest for adult forced labor for the first time.
“This marks progress in our long-term strategic engagement with the Uzbek authorities, which ultimately aims at helping Uzbekistan reform its labor practices in the cotton sector and supporting the diversification and modernization of the country’s agriculture sector more broadly,” the World Bank said.
An ILO mission in 2013 was limited to checking for evidence of child labor, which activists acknowledge that Tashkent has now all but eradicated. The concern is that the burden has now shifted to adults.
“The organized recruitment of adults to pick cotton is widespread,” last year’s ILO mission found. While many “seem to be willing recruits and see the harvest as an opportunity,” in other cases “certain indicators of forced labor have been observed.”
The use of child labor “has become rare and sporadic,” the ILO reported, since Tashkent has acted to “make it socially unacceptable.”
That followed intense international pressure and an ongoing boycott of Uzbekistan’s cotton by major western retailers.
Progress over child labor and moves on forced labor notwithstanding, campaigners argue that the main problem is that Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest is predicated on coercion.
Tashkent, which enjoys a monopoly on cotton purchases, sets such cheap prices to buy cotton from farmers that many feel compelled to resort to forced labor to meet state-set harvest quotas.
Tashkent has set the ambitious goal of fully mechanizing the harvest by 2020 to eliminate the need for manual labor altogether.