Despite evidence documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW) of forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector, on 30 June the World Bank’s board approved yet another project that will benefit the sector, green-lighting a $145 million irrigation project. A report published in late June by HRW and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights claimed that, “the Uzbek government forced students, teachers, medical workers, other government employees, and private-sector employees to harvest cotton in 2015 and 2016, as well as prepare the cotton fields in the spring of 2016”.
There have been repeated concerns about forced labour in Bank-funded projects in the country in recent years. In 2016, a victim of forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton production and three Uzbek human rights defenders filed a complaint in relation to a textile project financed by the International Finance Corporation (IFC, the Bank’s private sector arm) with the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO, the IFC’s accountability mechanism; see Observer Autumn 2016). The complaint alleged the textile project failed to account for forced labour in the cotton sector as part of the project’s supply chain. In November 2015, civil society organisations called for the World Bank to suspend its loans to Uzbekistan, “until the government ends the use of forced labour in all project-affected areas” (see Observer Winter 2016).
However, the new HRW report noted, “Despite [these concerns], the World Bank remains active in the country’s agriculture sector providing a total of $518.75 million in loans to the government for projects in this sector in 2015 and 2016.” Following the release of HRW’s report, staff from the Bank’s Uzbek country team unintentionally left a voicemail with Jessica Evans of HRW, which included an internal discussion of the their response to the report. As Evans noted in a subsequent blog, “The ‘strategic story line’ to which the country team agreed on the call was to highlight to the board the bank’s role in reducing child labor in cotton, which according to them wouldn’t have happened ‘without the World Bank being involved,’ and dismiss our research as ‘old news.’ But our research found that the Uzbek government is still forcing kids as young as 10 to work in 4 regions, including in a World Bank project area and one of the regions of the new project.”