By Douglas Gillison

More than a year after hearing from alleged victims of systematic forced labor in the cotton industry of Uzbekistan, the World Bank decided late last month that it would not investigate their complaints.

The decision came despite the findings of an internal oversight panel, which determined in 2013 that a $100 million bank project had a “plausible” link to forced labor.

Human rights activists on Monday denounced the decision, saying it favored the promises of bank managers, who are responsible for the project, over the injury to victims.

The experiences of the victims “should have been central in their minds,” said Jessica Evans, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Every autumn, the authoritarian Central Asian nation drives as many as a million of its able-bodied people — teenagers and adults, thousands of doctors, teachers and others — into vast cotton fields that produce the world’s fifth-largest export cotton crop. Failure to comply, or to pick enough cotton, reportedly can lead to arrest, fines, pay cuts, demotions and firings. Classrooms can sit empty and some understaffed hospitals are unable to treat patients due to the mobilization, according to Human Rights Watch.

A World Bank spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about the decision. Rather, she referred a reporter to an in-house interview from June, in which a regional official said international pressure was leading to positive change in Uzbekistan.

The World Bank moves billions into poor economies every year and watchdog groups have seized on the bank’s often faltering efforts to protect the public from dispossession and human rights violations tied to its work.

An internal audit last year found that the bank had improperly offered private-sector loans to a Honduran company allegedly tied to death squads.

Dilya Zoirova, an operations analyst at the oversight body, known as the Inspection Panel, declined to directly address questions about the human rights organization’s  criticism, instead citing the panel’s final report on the project.

“In line with the Inspection Panel’s mandate, its investigation should be restricted to World Bank-financed projects and cannot extend to the entire agriculture sector of Uzbekistan,” Zoirova wrote in an email.

Acting on behalf of farmers and laborers, a group of Central Asian activists in 2013 called for an investigation by the Inspection Panel, which receives complaints from people claiming to have been harmed by bank projects.

But in deciding not to open an investigation, the panel cited a “clear trajectory” in the bank’s efforts to eradicate child and forced labor and “considerable progress” in talks with the government in Tashkent.

The World Bank has pledged to create an independent system for monitoring labor and for registering grievances and complaints.

“Those are two somewhat important mitigation measures but at this point they remain mere promises to the board,” said Evans, of Human Rights Watch.

The December decision not to open an investigation was approved by the bank’s board of governors on January 23.

 “No other financial institution in the world can legally lend money to a system of forced labor.”
–Brian Campbell, International Labor Rights Forum

The United States, the largest shareholder in the World Bank, took a mixed view of the result, which it did not oppose.

“[T]he United States would have preferred that the panel defer its recommendation on a full investigation,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.

Uzbekistan puts between two and three million bales of cotton into the world market every year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Bangladeshi and Chinese manufacturers have been the largest buyers, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of activists. But more than 160 companies, including global retailers such as Wal-Mart, IKEA, H&M and Gap Inc., have pledged to avoid the use of cotton from Uzbekistan.

The Embassy of Uzbekistan in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. However, government officials told a panel of the International Labor Organization in 2013 that all cotton pickers worked voluntarily and were justly compensated.

Brian Campbell, a senior advisor at the International Labor Rights Forum, said Uzbekistan’s cotton revenues, possibly generated with World Bank financing, were funneled into a mysterious account managed with no transparency by the central government.

The World Bank’s sovereign immunity meant it could afford to be less cautious than private companies that are subject to domestic laws which ban trade involving forced labor, he said.

“No other financial institution in the world can legally lend money to a system of forced labor, but for the World Bank,” said Campbell.


Credit: Top photo by Thomas Grabka.

Douglas Gillison

Douglas Gillison

Douglas Gillison is a former staff writer for 100Reporters. His investigative projects have included the declassification of 1,300 pages of FBI records from a 1997 political massacre and the exposure of payments by a publicly traded mining company that are now the subject of an international criminal bribery investigation.