Forced labor in Uzbek cotton fields linked to World Bank funds: rights groups

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Children and adults were forced to pick cotton in at least one project funded by the World Bank in Uzbekistan, where the cotton industry has been tainted by widespread forced labor, rights groups said on Tuesday.

The Uzbek government forced students, teachers and doctors to plant cotton and harvest it from 2015 to 2017, stopping children from receiving a full education, Human Rights Watch and the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights said in a report.

“The quality of education at all levels is greatly undermined even when children aren’t sent out to work because their teachers are sent out to work,” Jessica Evans, a Human Rights Watch researcher, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Half the time the kids are left alone because there aren’t teachers in the room,” she added.

Those who refused to work on cotton fields risked being fired, expelled from school or having their welfare payments slashed, the report said.

In one irrigation project funded by the World Bank spanning an area where the government had agreed to prohibit forced and child labor, researchers found children as young as 13 working in fields as well as adults who had been coerced into working.

The World Bank provided almost $700 million in loans to the Uzbek government for agriculture and water projects in 2015 and 2016.

“The World Bank Group does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously reports of incidents in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan,” a World Bank spokesperson said in response to the report.

“We continue to voice our strong concerns on labor issues to the government of Uzbekistan.”

Uzbek authorities could not be reached for comment.

Human rights groups say Uzbekistan is concealing a state-orchestrated forced labor system that underpins its position as the world’s fifth-largest cotton exporter. They cite regular arrests, intimidation and harassment of activists.

This has sparked a global boycott almost 300 companies, including fashion giants such as Zara and Yves Saint Laurent, who pledged not to knowingly source Uzbek cotton until the government ends forced and child labor in the industry.

Rights groups said the systemic nature of forced labor in the Uzbek cotton industry made it highly unlikely that any company souring a significant amount of cotton from Uzbekistan was free of forced labor in their supply chain.

A leading campaigner against forced labor in Uzbekistan, Elena Urlaeva, was arrested in March ahead of an international meeting where she was scheduled to give evidence on human rights violations. She was released three weeks later.

One of the few independent rights defenders in Uzbekistan, Urlaeva has regularly been beaten, arrested and sexually abused by Uzbek authorities, rights groups said.

In early 2017, the International Labour Organization (ILO), found that although Uzbekistan is making progress in eliminating child labor from its cotton industry, forced labor was still widespread.

ILO monitoring did not find any instances of forced or child labor in projects supported by the World Bank.