A woman picks cotton during the 2015 cotton harvest, which runs from early September to late October or early November annually.

© 2015 Simon Buxton/Anti-Slavery International

Despite recent reforms, systematic forced labor was still rampant in 2017 in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector, new research shows.

A report by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights (UGF), a German-based nongovernmental organization, found evidence of a state-sponsored system of forced labor in all regions they monitored during the 2017 harvest. Local officials, under pressure of a quota production system, continued to force people to pick cotton with little accountability.

This research is consistent with findings in a 2016 joint report by UGF and Human Rights Watch documenting labor rights violations that underpin Uzbekistan’s cotton industry, including in areas with World Bank funded cotton sector projects. The new report confirms that forced labor continued in World Bank project areas, contrary to the bank’s loan agreements. While this should be grounds for project suspension, the bank remains heavily invested in projects that benefit Uzbekistan’s cotton sector.

Throughout 2017, Uzbekistan saw significant political change, including on forced labor in the cotton fields. At the UN General Assembly on September 19, 2017, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev acknowledged for the first time publicly the issue of forced labor in his country. The next day, World Bank President Jim Kim raised the issue of forced labor with Mirziyoyev. Several days later, Uzbek Prime Minister Abdulla Aripov recalled university students and some public sector workers who had been forced to work in the cotton fields.

However, as UGF’s new report makes clear, it is too soon to declare victory. Later in the harvest, many recalled workers were sent back, while others were forced to pay for replacement workers under threat of penalty, a form of extortion.

Kim recently met with Mirziyoyev again and pledged to “advance the government’s efforts to build a brighter future for all the people of Uzbekistan.” This is a good start but the bank needs to follow its words with actions by working with Uzbekistan to develop and implement a time-bound plan to end forced labor in both the fall harvest and spring weeding season, and to develop a roadmap towards accountability for and prevention of labor rights abuses. Now, with signs of Uzbekistan’s political opening, it is more vital than ever that the Bank press for the systematic change required to end Uzbekistan’s use of forced and child labor in the cotton sector.