A new report from Human Rights Watch and Uzbek activists alleges the continued use of forced and child labor in harvesting the Central Asian country’s cotton crop.
Fall is cotton picking season in Uzbekistan. Every autumn, as the bolls ripen, the Central Asian government presses approximately one million of its own citizens, mostly civil servants, teachers, and students, into the fields as cotton pickers, bringing $1 billion in annual revenue, a quarter of Uzbekistan’s GDP. And that annual harvest has long been mired in controversy for using child and forced labor, though the practice had been declining in recent years, in large part due to pressure from international organizations and boycotts from global garment companies.
However, a new report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch, in conjunction with the Uzbek-German Forum, an advocacy group, alleges that both practices are still alive and well — and are taking place in areas that are home to World Bank agriculture projects.
Based on hundreds of interviews conducted from 2015 to 2017, leaked government documents, and statements by government officials, the report documents what it says is the widespread use of forced labor — and less prevalent instances of child labor — in the 2016 cotton harvest. Both Human Rights Watch and the Uzbek-German Forum added in the 114-page report that the World Bank’s continued support for projects on land where such violations take place creates the image that the Uzbek government “is working to end forced labor in good faith, when it is not.” Both called on the World Bank to pressure the Uzbek government.
“The World Bank has significant responsibility, but also significant leverage. It needs to exercise both,” Jessica Evans, senior researcher on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch and one of the report’s authors, told Foreign Policy.
The World Bank has been a major investor in Uzbekistan’s agriculture sector and has faced accusations in the past that projects that its funds in the country were linked to forced and child labor. In 2013, after complaints about forced labor, the World Bank implemented new measures for its projects to better comply with national and international laws, including implementing third-party monitoring. Moreover, the World Bank can suspend its loans to the Uzbek government if there is credible evidence of systematic forced and child labor on projects that it funds.
“We’re not asking the World Bank to disengage from Uzbekistan by any means. We just want them to enforce the restrictions of their own loans,” said Evans.
A spokesperson from the World Bank told FP in a statement that the organization “does not condone forced labor in any form” and pointed to a report produced by the International Labor Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency that provides third-party monitoring of the World Bank’s projects in Uzbekistan, that found “no incidences of child and forced labor were identified with regard to World Bank-supported agriculture, water, and education projects.”
The roots of Uzbekistan’s cotton fields were planted during the Soviet Union, and the government still maintains a monopoly, paying well-below-market prices for the crop, then selling it overseas for a huge profit that helps balance its precarious finances. Uzbek officials characterize participation in the annual harvest as a type of national service, and often pay pickers a tiny fee for their labor. But in many instances, workers have to pay their own way to the fields and for their own meals, meaning many end up working for nothing or even go into debt during the harvest.
The backbreaking work and low wages mean Uzbek authorities often have to coerce workers into the fields. The Human Rights Watch and Uzbek-German Forum report documents the method used to force laborers to work on one World Bank project area: Withholding welfare benefits, threatening to fire public sector employees, and threatening students with expulsion.
The World Bank maintains that the financing it provides to government projects in Uzbekistan are meant to help transition the country away from its economic dependence on cotton by increasing mechanization and encouraging diversification to other, less labor intensive crops. While acknowledging that forced labor exists in the country, but not on the area of projects that it funds, the World Bank points to reports from the ILO to buttress its claim that forced labor has declined in recent years.
But even the ILO’s work comes under fire in the report. Like most international agencies, the ILO operates in the country at the pleasure of the Uzbek government, a fact Human Rights Watch suggests raises questions about the organization ability to accurately monitor abuses.
The ILO flatly rejects those notions. Beate Andrees, chief of the International Labor Organization’s fundamental principles and rights branch told FP that the organization faces no censorship over what it can include in its reports and aims to present a fair depiction of the situation on the ground.
“We are not saying there is no problem in Uzbekistan, but we have not been able to [identify] the systematic use of forced labor,” said Andrees. “We have also witnessed a positive trend in how the government authorities respond.”
Indeed, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan’s new president, has has promised reform of the cotton sector and other elements of the country’s sclerotic economy. He assumed power last September, after the death of leader-for-life Islam Karimov. But questions whether he is a true reformer linger. As prime minister from 2003 to 2016, Mirziyoyev oversaw the cotton harvest and the use of forced and child labor was common.
Those concerns may not be unfounded. In March, Elena Urlaeva, a prominent Uzbek labor activist, was arrested when prior to a meeting with the ILO and the International Organization of Trade Unions to discuss forced labor in the cotton harvest. She says she was beaten by police before being admitted to a psychiatric clinic. Urlaeva was eventually released on June 1. Other activists against forced labor face similar threats and harassment.
Andrees, from the ILO, remains cautiously optimistic about such progress, but is quick to note that policy changes at the top are slow to trickle down to the local level.
“It’s one thing to say that forced labor is prohibited,” said Andrees. “It’s another thing to translate that into the reality on the ground.”
Photo credit: DENIS SINYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images