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Financing Forced Labor in the Cotton Fields of Uzbekistan

Image via wikimedia commons

To most families in the United States, early September means back to school and heading to the football or soccer fields. To Uzbekistan’s families, September means the government forces many adults and children into the fields to pick cotton. Since this year’s harvest began, three young people have died. The youngest was a six-year-old boy, Amirbek Rachmatow, who suffocated under a pile of cotton on Sept. 15.

Under a Soviet-style command economy, the government of Uzbekistan orders farmers to plant the cash crop, pays them below-market prices for it and forces students, teachers and workers from both the public and private sector into the fields to pick the cotton. Those who refuse face repression, ranging from beatings, expulsion from school, loss of employment or access to public services to increased taxes. According to a June 2013 report of the U.S. Embassy there, "The Government of Uzbekistan remains one of only a handful of governments around the world that subjects its citizens to forced labor through implementation of state policy." Recognizing this fact, the United States downgraded Uzbekistan this June to the lowest classification for countries’ efforts to eliminate the modern forms of slavery known as trafficking in persons.

In all too many parts of the global economy, workers’ rights violations are accepted as “business as usual.” In this part of this particular supply chain, however, labor unions like those of the AFL-CIO, human rights groups and some business organizations and socially responsible investors that participate in The Cotton Campaign have together argued that Uzbekistan’s way of doing business is unacceptable. The campaign has brought pressure on Uzbekistan by working with some major corporations in this supply chain and through some national governments to stop forced labor in the Uzbek cotton Industry. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor released its most recent critical evaluation of child labor in the cotton fields on Sept. 30, 2013. At the International Labor Organization (ILO), both worker and employer representatives have made the case a priority in annual hearings on the world’s worst workers’ rights violations since 2010, finally securing entry for ILO experts to monitor this year’s harvest.  

However, recent missteps by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank show that international financial organizations remain slow to defend the most fundamental human rights for workers, citizens and children. Over the past five years, the World Bank has regularly and indiscriminately financed agricultural development projects in Uzbekistan, failing to ensure that funds do not contribute to the cotton industry that depends heavily on forced labor. During the very same weeks this fall, when more than a million children and adults, so many in Uzbekistan, were forced into the cotton fields and three young people died, the Asian Development Bank approved a loan to the government of Uzbekistan for irrigation systems that will benefit the cotton production that is underpinned by government-orchestrated forced labor. Among others in the coalition, Human Rights Watch and civil society groups from Uzbekistan have worked to press these development banks to play a positive role in economic development in Uzbekistan rather than facilitate forced labor and child labor.  

The United States and other countries finance these institutions and have a vote on their governing bodies. They should use that vote in the future to demand that Uzbekistan improve its labor rights and human rights practices before receiving financing. In addition, member countries of the ILO must insist that reporting produced by the ILO monitors reflect the harsh reality of the harvest as much as possible.        

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