World Bank Approves Problematic Uzbekistan Projects
In a disappointing move, the World Bank has decided to fund three projects in Uzbekistan despite concerns raised that such investments risk perpetuating the state-sponsored system of forced labor in the cotton sector. The Uzbek government controls all aspects of the cotton industry and forces over a million of its own citizens to harvest cotton annually. Funding projects in Uzbekistan will only allow the political elite to more deeply line their pockets with cotton profits.
The Uzbek government forces many students, including 16-17 year olds, to work in cotton fields without adequate housing or food for weeks, pays farmers prices below cost of production, and sells this “white gold” at world market prices. After much international outcry over forced child labor, including 141 brands vowing not to purchase Uzbek cotton until the forced labor practice stopped, the Uzbek government almost entirely eliminated children under the age of 16 from working in the harsh harvesting conditions during the 2013 harvest. Unfortunately, teenagers, university students, and adult citizens were still forced to harvest cotton under the threat of expulsion from school, imprisonment, unemployment, or punishment.
Something must be done to rectify this dysfunctional and antiquated system of modern day slavery. By funding these Uzbek projects before seeing any real progress toward changing the root causes of forced labor, the World Bank is perpetuating a broken system. In a letter to the World Bank, Responsible Sourcing Network and other members of the Cotton Campaign stated, “The mass use of forced labor in the cotton sector of Uzbekistan is particularly pernicious in that it is organized by the state. The World Bank acknowledges this problem in project documents for each of the proposed projects.” It is disappointing that the World Bank went forward with these projects despite recognizing the seriousness of the issue.
It is now a pivotal time for retail companies, consumers, investors, and lending institutions to speak out against these human rights violations and to solidify their commitments not to use or invest in cotton grown in Uzbekistan. It is necessary more than ever to keep pressure on the Uzbek government to change its underlying structure of systemic forced labor so come harvest season in the fall, no child or adult will be forced to labor in the fields.