By Brian Campbell, Legal Adviser and Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign Coordinator
Increasingly, the government of Uzbekistan is the only actor in the room that continues to deny its system of forced labor cotton production. Every year, the Uzbek government forces farmers to produce state-established quotas of cotton and to sell it to the government for less than production costs, and every year the government forces over a million citizens to harvest cotton. This is one of the largest state-run forced labor systems in the world, yet it continues because the Uzbek government is addicted to the slush fund it provides. To avoid reform, the Uzbek government misrepresents the reality.
Recently, the Uzbek government sent a statement to governments and international organizations with a glaring inaccuracy, claiming that in 2014 the World Bank Inspection Panel “assessed the significant progress in issues of reforming the labor and cotton production industry.” To the contrary, the Inspection Panel, which oversees Bank policy compliance, reported that while there was a “lack of organized and systematic child labor in the 2014 cotton harvest…forced labor had replaced child labor and cannot be estimated to be on the decrease.”
Sadly, while the Uzbek government works on spinning reality, its actions belie its words. Last week, the Uzbek government arrested, interrogated, deported and banned from the country an international labor expert, Dr. Andre Mrost, who was in the country for discussions with potential partners in his company’s bid for a World Bank contract to create a mechanism that would allow Uzbek citizens to register complaints related to labor laws and the Bank’s agricultural and education projects in the country. Bank financing for these projects totals more than half a billion dollars, and the World Bank has committed to establish such a mechanism as well as to monitor labor conditions in its project areas and suspend its loans if there is child or forced labor in them.
No amount of spin can belie the fact that the Uzbek government has not taken steps to dismantle the forced labor cotton system it has created. It will take continued pressure from the international community, including the World Bank, the International Labor Organization and their member states to convince the authorities in Tashkent to stop spinning this massive human rights violation and take steps to dismantle it.