Following continued concerns about government-organised forced and child labour in Uzbekistan’s annual cotton harvest (see Observer Spring 2015, Bulletin Feb 2014), in November a coalition of 42 individuals, businesses and civil society organisations sent a letter to the World Bank calling for a suspension of Bank funding “until the government ends the use of forced labour in all project-affected areas”.
In January 2015, the World Bank’s accountability mechanism, the Inspection Panel, declined a request to investigate the use of forced and child labour in cotton harvesting, quoting “considerable progress” in the Bank’s dialogue with the government of Uzbekistan and a commitment from the Bank to work with the International Labour Organization (ILO) to monitor forced and child labour during the 2015 and 2016 harvests (see Observer Spring 2015). The first ILO report, released in November, concluded that while “the risk of forced labour … is real, and not merely theoretical”, it found no “conclusive information that beneficiaries of World Bank-supported project used child or forced labour during the 2015 cotton harvest”. However, Joanna Ewart-James of the Walk Free Movement disputed this claim in a December Huffington post blog, stating that the Uzbek authorities “have gone to great lengths to keep its use of forced labour secret by claiming the mass mobilisation is voluntary. We know this is not the truth. The Uzbekistan police have repeatedly arrested and physically beaten Uzbek human rights activists who are risking their lives to monitor and speak out on the use of forced labour in the cotton fields.”