Child picking cotton in September 2012, Suyima Pakhtakor, Jizzakh.

(Washington, DC) – The World Bank’s internal watchdog should investigate whether bank projects are contributing to forced labor in Uzbekistan, the Cotton Campaign said today. The Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights, labor, investor, and business organizations dedicated to ending forced labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan, echoed calls that independent Uzbek groups made in a November 2014 letter to the Inspection Panel.

The World Bank Inspection Panel will decide by December 19 whether existing bank projects benefit the forced labor system under which Uzbek authorities forcibly mobilize more than a million citizens each year to pick cotton.

“The World Bank has an obligation to ensure that it does not contribute to forced labor or other human rights violations in its activities,” said Umida Niyazova, Uzbek German Forum for Human Rights director. “The Inspection Panel has the crucial role of holding the bank to account and it can’t do that by giving the bank a free pass for egregious abuses.”

In response to a complaint from independent Uzbek groups in 2013, the Inspection Panel found that “as long as Bank financing is supporting in some measure cotton production and there is a residual possibility that there can be child/forced labor on farms receiving project support (since they do not allegedly have a choice of whether to accept child or forced labor), then it is plausible that the [Rural Enterprise Support] Project can contribute to perpetuating the harm of child and forced labor.”

However, it delayed by a year making a decision on whether to investigate to give the World Bank time to establish labor standards monitoring and address the policies underlying forced labor and child labor.

Over the last year, though, the World Bank has made little progress in addressing labor abuses in Uzbekistan. It has not worked with the Uzbek government to address the root causes of forced labor. The bank has relied on project-level mitigation measures despite protests from independent Uzbek groups that such measures would not prevent bank financing from being linked to the government’s centralized system of forced labor. The World Bank has expanded its agriculture portfolio, for instance also investing in an irrigation project that will benefit the cotton industry.

“The World Bank’s proposals fall short in Uzbekistan, where forced labor in the cotton sector is uniquely government-orchestrated and supported by repressing independent groups,” said Jessica Evans, senior international financial institutions researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The World Bank needs to ensure that independent groups and journalists can monitor World Bank projects and report forced labor without fear of reprisal.”

The Uzbek government’s forced labor system for cotton production is a gross violation of international law. As activists in Uzbekistan have documented, the Uzbek government system of coercing farmers to cultivate cotton and forcing adults and children to harvest the crop continued for the 2014 season. Authorities also suppressed any attempts by citizens to report on these abuses.

Following international pressure, the government reduced the number of young children sent to harvest cotton in 2014, as it had done in 2013, but increased the use of older children and adults. The forced labor of adults disrupts the delivery of essential services nationwide, as authorities mobilize public sector workers – including doctors, nurses, and teachers – to fill quotas.

World Bank President Jim Kim has emphasized the importance of the World Bank learning from its mistakes. After the Inspection Panel identified a plausible link between Bank loans and forced labor in Uzbekistan, it is imperative that it fully investigate what went wrong to prevent similar problems in the future, the Cotton Campaign said.

“The World Bank should halt these new projects that support the cotton industry and address the policies underlying forced labor with the Uzbek government,” said Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign coordinator. “A thorough investigation by the Inspection Panel would send the right message to the bank that it must ensure it isn’t contributing to forced labor now or in the future and say to Tashkent that the bank will not tolerate such abuses.”