Uzbekistan: World Bank Rejects Child and Forced Labor Probe
The World Bank has declined a request by human rights campaigners to investigate whether its agricultural projects contribute to the use of forced and child labor in Uzbekistan. Yet it has acknowledged that farms benefiting from its assistance might be forcing adults and children to work against their will.
There is a “residual possibility that there can be child and/or forced labor on farms receiving project support,” the World Bank’s Inspection Panel (which handles complaints about projects) said in a ruling delivered in December and approved by the board on January 23. “Hence, there was a plausibility that the project could contribute to perpetuating the harm of child and forced labor.”
The oversight body declined to launch an official probe, however, on the grounds that measures are being taken to tackle forced and child labor in Uzbekistan.
“This decision calls into question the Inspection Panel’s commitment to stand with communities to end abuse,” said Jessica Evans of Human Rights Watch.
The ruling is “shocking,” added Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, in a statement e-mailed by the Cotton Campaign.
“To millions of victims of forced labor in Uzbekistan, the bank has said that despite recognizing the relationship between their plight and its loans, it is not worth investigating,” Niyazova added. “Disturbingly, the bank’s decision is also a message to the Uzbek government that it can continue its forced labor system.”
Niyazova was one of the campaigners who asked for a probe in 2013, amid concerns that the World Bank’s $108-billion Second Rural Enterprise Support Project was effectively contributing to government-sponsored forced and child labor.
Every fall, controversy rages over Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest, with campaigners alleging that up to a million slave laborers are drafted in to pick the cash crop whose export revenues fill government coffers.
In 2013, an International Labor Organization monitoring mission reported that “systematic child labor was not found in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest,” and last year an ILO official said the situation was “improving.”
However, campaigners say efforts to eradicate child labor have simply shifted the cotton-picking burden to older children and adults. The US government said last year that the administration of President Islam Karimov had made “no advancement” in eliminating the worst forms of child labor.
The World Bank management is “committed to robust implementation support and monitoring of measures to address child and forced labor issues,” the Inspection Panel noted, and has pledged to establish third-party monitoring of their use “across the Bank's portfolio.”
The ILO agreed to conduct third-party monitoring for child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton harvest last year. But Tashkent’s foot-dragging prevented it, the panel said. It has now been agreed that the ILO will conduct third-party monitoring of the use of both child and forced labor in Bank-financed projects in Uzbekistan from this year, for an initial period of two years.
There may have been “insufficient due diligence in addressing the concerns about harm” from forced and child labor in the early years of the project, the panel acknowledged. But it “recognized and appreciated, however, the significant positive trends that had emerged with respect to the critical issue of child labor, including actions already taken and further commitments and intentions on the part of the government and its partners.”
It was “encouraged by the clear improvement in dialogue with the government,” noting Tashkent’s “willingness to discuss [forced and child labor] openly” and “greater sensitivity to these issues, including reputational risks to the country's global image.”
Human rights campaigners charge that Tashkent is more concerned about window dressing for an international audience than actually eradicating child and forced labor.
The report noted Tashkent’s commitment to mechanizing the agricultural sector and diversifying away from cotton to reduce the need for manual laborers – although it acknowledged that this is a long-term process.
The World Bank has “effectively sent a message to the Uzbek government that as long as it pays lip service to addressing the issue, it can continue to force millions of people to work in the cotton fields,” Evans of Human Rights Watch said.
“And to Uzbekistan’s forced laborers,” she concluded, “the message is tough luck.”
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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