Uzbek Group Calls on World Bank to Halt Loans for Irrigation, Citing Forced Labor in Cotton Industry

TASHKENT, Uzbekistan

A small separatist group in Uzbekistan’s northwestern Karakalpakstan region has called on World Bank President Jim Yong Kim to postpone $411 million USD worth of loans under a program aimed at improving water management in cotton production. The group, Forward Karakalpakstan, sent Kim a letter in which it claimed the Uzbek government is abusing minority rights and using forced labor.

“The government owns all the land of Uzbekistan and forces farmers to meet annual quotas for cotton and sell it to the state at a low purchasing price -- under the threat of losing land, criminal charges and physical violence,” quoted the letter as saying.

“Every autumn, the Uzbek government forcibly mobilized 16-17 year old students of colleges and universities, pensioners, education and health professionals, and other public sector workers to pick cotton,” it added.

The letter also claimed that the region is “under political and economic blockade” and is being “held captive” by Tashkent. The government will use the bank’s money in ways that were not intended, it warned.

International groups have previously accused Uzbekistan of using forced labor in cotton production, as well as other human rights violations.

Last September, international watchdog group Human Rights Watch and the Cotton Campaign, which fights child labor in the cotton industry, urged the Asian Development Bank (ADB) not to fund an irrigation project in Uzbekistan due to “grave human rights concerns.”

“The Asian Development Bank has an important role to play in funding development in Uzbekistan, but it shouldn’t be supporting a system that uses forced labor,” the organizations said in a letter to ADB President Takenhiko Nakao.

“The bank has closed its eyes to the fact that its irrigation project would bolster a cotton-growing system that routinely violates the rights of the people forced to pick the cotton,” said Jessica Evans, senior advocate for international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch says that during the 2012 cotton harvest, the Uzbek government forced over a million people, including children, to pick the cotton under abusive conditions. Regional authorities, police and even school administrators, acting under the direction of Prime Minister Shavkat Miromonovich Mirziyoyev and other cabinet members, were involved in transporting busloads of people to the cotton fields.

The workers were forced to pick for weeks at a time, living in unsanitary conditions, and were paid very little or nothing and not allowed to leave.

However, later that month, ADB approved a $220 million USD loan to upgrade a 45-year-old water supply system and secure irrigation to 6,500 farms in Uzbekistan’s Bukhara and Navoi provinces.

The bank addressed the labor concerns by saying it had included loan covenants to force the government to comply with core labor standards while implementing the project.