The recent release of 200,000 university students and some teachers and medical workers from forced labor picking cotton in Uzbekistan came shortly after World Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s first meeting with the country’s new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, on September 20, 2017. Kim urged Mirziyoyev at that meeting to end forced labor.
While more comprehensive reforms are necessary, Kim’s strong and public stance, and its near immediate impact in Uzbekistan, shows that the World Bank can convince governments to stop abusing human rights abuses when it chooses to use its leverage.
It isn’t all good news though. The government is making some of the recalled teachers and medical workers pay a significant chunk of their already low salary to hire people to replace them in the fields, and police have continued to arrest independent monitors and journalists documenting labor abuses. While some teachers and medical workers have been recalled, others have been instructed to lie about their professions and to remain in the fields or have been sent back to the fields after a short reprieve.
These developments came after the release of our joint report with the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights documenting systematic forced labor and ongoing child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector, including in World Bank project areas. We found that the government threatened people’s jobs, welfare payments, or access to university education if they refused. Kim said the facts that we provided allowed him to have a “very honest, direct conversation” with Mirziyoyev.
The Uzbek government should stop forcing anyone to work in the cotton fields, not charge people to hire “replacement workers,” and allow human rights defenders to monitor and report on the labor situation in the fields without fear of reprisals. It should also address the root causes of forced labor, including by raising the state-established procurement prices for cotton and other agricultural products to reflect the costs of the market rate for voluntary labor and by making the country’s opaque agriculture fund, the Selkhozfond, transparent and accountable.
The World Bank should press the Uzbek government to make these reforms and allow unfettered independent monitoring. It should suspend projects linked to forced and child labor until government-led abuses in these project areas stop and engage a monitor completely independent of the government to identify abuses linked to bank projects.
Recognizing the significant impact of his intervention with the Uzbek government, Kim should urge other governments to address serious rights abuses that undermine development.