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Asian Development Bank: Reconsider Uzbekistan Project

Proposed Project Fails to Address Forced, Child Labor

Update: On September 25, the Asian Development Bank’s board approved the $220 million loan for the Modernization and Improved Performance of the Amu Bukhara Irrigation System (ABIS) project in Uzbekistan. This project will benefit the cotton industry.

The Bank did not adequately address the grave human rights concerns in the industry the project will support, including the government’s practice of forcing over a million children and adults to pick cotton during the annual harvest. On September 15, a 6-year-old boy died while asleep in a cotton field, suffocated under a load of cotton. The project will proceed despite attacks in Uzbekistan against independent monitors documenting labor rights violations in the cotton industry.

On September 21 Sergei Naumov, an independent journalist, disappeared after being detained by Uzbek authorities. Naumov had been shooting video footage of people forced to pick the cotton in local cotton fields. Naumov has since been located at the Urgench City Department of Internal Affairs intake facility.

On September 24, Bobomurad Razzakov, chairman of the Bukhara region branch of Ezgulik (Compassion), Uzbekistan’s only legally registered independent human rights group, was sentenced to four years in prison by the Bukhara City Criminal Court on fabricated charges of "human trafficking.” Ezgulik has worked extensively on human rights issues in the cotton industry and filed a complaint with the World Bank’s Inspection Panel on September 5 raising concerns about the bank’s failure to ensure that its funds for a project benefiting the cotton industry do not contribute to forced and child labor.
(Manila) – The Asian Development Bank should not proceed with its Uzbekistan irrigation project until grave human rights concerns including forced labor are adequately addressed, Human Rights Watch and the Cotton Campaign said in a letter to the bank’s president released today.

The bank’s board of directors is imminently scheduled to consider the project. The project will benefit the cotton sector, which relies on forced labor, including forced child labor.

“The Asian Development Bank has an important role to play in funding development in Uzbekistan, but it shouldn’t be supporting a system that uses forced labor,” said Jessica Evans, senior advocate for international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch. “The Bank has closed its eyes to the fact that its irrigation project would bolster a cotton-growing system that routinely violates the rights of the people forced to pick the cotton.”

During the 2012 harvest the Uzbek government forced over a million of its own citizens – children and adults – to harvest cotton in abusive conditions under threat of punishment. Regional authorities, police, and school administrators, reporting to the prime minister and other cabinet ministers, transported busloads of children and adults to the country’s cotton fields, where those far from their homes were assigned temporary housing. The workers picked cotton for weeks at a time and were not free to leave. Mobilization is currently under way for the 2013 harvest.

The workers lived in unsanitary conditions, worked from early morning until evening for little or no pay, and some suffered serious injuries and illnesses. Children and youth missed school and college. Adults and older children were required to harvest a minimum of 60 kilograms (or 132 pounds) per day, with younger children required to meet slightly lower quotas.

The Asian Development Bank has made a commitment not to fund activities involving harmful or exploitative forms of forced labor or child labor and to work toward the “elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor.” But the bank has limited its consideration of labor risks related to this project to water sector employees. That restriction is grossly inappropriate, given the known violations of labor rights in cotton production, the economic activity that most benefits from this project, Human Rights Watch and the Cotton Campaign said.

Further, the Uzbek government officials who are responsible for directing the forced labor of children and adults during the cotton harvest also control the irrigation system in the bank’s project area. Worse still, the bank has tapped these same officials to play a key role in the project grievance redress mechanism.

In addition to relying on forced labor, the tightly controlled, highly centralized structure of the cotton sector in Uzbekistan undermines farmers’ incomes. That is contrary to the bank’s commitments for sustainable economic growth that is inclusive and helps the country’s poor, Human Rights Watch and the Cotton Campaign said.

“Uzbek cotton farmers are forced to meet state-established cotton quotas, purchase inputs from one state-owned enterprise, and sell the cotton to a state-owned enterprise at artificially low prices,” said Matthew Fischer-Daly, coordinator at Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights, labor, investor, and business organizations dedicated to ending forced labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan. “The system traps farmers in poverty, and the state profits from high-priced sales to global buyers.”

On June 11, 2013, the tripartite Committee on the Application of Standards of the International Labour Organization (ILO) cited evidence of the “systematic mobilization” of adults and children to pick cotton during Uzbekistan’s 2012 cotton harvest “as well as the substantial negative impact of this practice on the health and education of school-aged children obliged to participate in the cotton harvest.” The committee reiterated its call to Uzbek authorities to invite a high-level ILO observer mission to monitor during the current 2013 harvest.

Also in June, the United States government downgraded Uzbekistan to the lowest category in its human trafficking ranking because of the Uzbek government’s use of forced and child labor.

The current repressive climate for independent civil society organizations in Uzbekistan presents a significant barrier to civic participation and meaningful consultation with those affected by the project. Authorities regularly threaten, imprison, and torture rights defenders and civil society activists, and block international rights groups and media outlets from operating in Uzbekistan. Numerous human rights defenders, independent journalists, and opposition activists are in prison in Uzbekistan in retaliation for their work or criticism of the government.

In September 2012, during the peak of the previous cotton harvest, authorities arrested Uktam Pardaev, a rights activist well known for reporting on police abuses, torture, and forced labor. Pardaev was beaten by several officers during the initial arrest and then held for over 15 days on minor administrative charges of “hooliganism” and “resisting arrest.” Pardaev and other observers believe he was arrested to prevent him from monitoring the use of forced labor of children and adults during the annual harvest.

Human Rights Watch and the Cotton Campaign Recommend that the Asian Development Bank:

  • Refrain from approving the Modernization and Improved Performance of the Amu Bukhara Irrigation System (ABIS) project until human rights concerns including forced labor and child labor are addressed.
  • Raise with the Uzbek government, both publicly and privately, concerns about forced labor and other ongoing serious human rights violations in the country, including through the bank’s country strategy for Uzbekistan, and work with the government to address these concerns.
  • In recognition of the importance of civic participation and social accountability for development, urge the Uzbek government to amend its restrictive laws and practices governing operation of nongovernmental groups to bring them into line with the international human rights standards regarding freedom of association, expression, speech, and assembly.

“The Asian Development Bank has a responsibility to ensure it doesn’t fund projects that violate human rights,” Evans said. “It has not lived up to this responsibility in its proposed Uzbekistan project.”

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