WASHINGTON — The International Labor Rights Forum released a report Tuesday accusing the World Bank of potentially violating international labor law by providing loans to the Uzbek government, which has come under scrutiny for using forced labor in cotton harvesting.
A World Bank spokeswoman defended the bank’s practices, in response to the report.
In the 62-page report, entitled “Financing Forced Labor,” the labor rights watchdog group charged that the World Bank “knowingly” provides agricultural loans to the government of Uzbekistan that are used by the government to “sustain its state-orchestrated system of forced labor in the cotton sector.”
Uzbekistan has come under scrutiny from the U.S. State Department and human and labor rights for forcing more than a million people to pick cotton coercing farmers to grow cotton under the threat of penalty.
The Uzbek government has also been named on U.S. government watch lists.
In June, the State Department downgraded Uzbekistan to a Tier 3 country, which can trigger economic and military sanctions against a country, in its “2016 Trafficking in Persons Report.”
The Cotton Campaign, a coalition of human rights organizations, NGOs, trade unions and businesses associations, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry commending the agency’s actions.
A broad list of apparel brands and retailers, beginning in 2008, made a pledge to stop using cotton from Uzbekistan. Among them are American Eagle Outfitters Inc., Ann Taylor Inc., Macy’s Inc., Columbia Sportswear Co., Gap Inc., Hanesbrands Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., Marks & Spencer, Nordstrom Inc., Target Corp., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Kohl’s Corp. and TJ Maxx.
The ILRF said the case detailed in the report — the alleged use of forced labor by the Uzbekistan government of a million people to harvest cotton in 2015 — is “one of the most egregious examples of World Bank-supported human rights abuse in recent memory.”
In response to the allegations in the report, a World Bank spokeswoman said in an email: “The World Bank Group does not condone forced labor in any form and takes seriously the reports of such practices in the cotton production system of Uzbekistan.”
“We remain committed to helping Uzbekistan reform its labor practices in the cotton sector and supporting the diversification and modernization of the country’s agriculture sector more broadly,” the bank spokeswoman said.” Reform of the agriculture sector and modernization of cotton production in Uzbekistan are critically important for overall growth in the country and improvement of people’s lives.”
According to the ILRF, civil society monitors estimate more than one million “victims of forced labor” during the 2015 cotton harvest, noting that recent reports from the field “indicate the government’s policy of systematically mobilizing healthcare workers, students and teachers will remain in effect this fall.”
The analysis stems from a complaint filed at the World Bank Inspection Panel by civil society organizations representing Uzbek victims, and evaluates the national and international laws applicable to the bank. It concludes that the World Bank could be violating laws and be held liable in U.S. courts.
The report alleged that the Uzbek forced labor system has been sustained in part through loans to the Uzbek government from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Development Association, and loans to private companies sourcing Uzbek cotton from the International Finance Corporation.
The ILRF estimated that approximately $308 million in loans will be disbursed to the Uzbek government in the next five years to support its agricultural industry.
It also found the World Bank has allegedly financed several projects in the Uzbek agriculture sector since the country became a member in 1992. The report outlined millions of dollars it said the bank’s financing arms provided to the Uzbek government with more than $102 million over the past 15 years.
According to the report, the UN and the ILO have annually found the Government of Uzbekistan to be in violation of international labor and human rights standards concerning forced labor.
But neither has exercised its authority to consider whether the World Bank is violating international law by providing loans to the government that are used for cotton production, the report said.
“While the World Bank’s continued financing of agricultural projects in Uzbekistan seemingly violates both its internal laws and international law, no national or international court has heard or issued an opinion about this matter, and there has never been a legal assessment conducted on its merits,” charged Andy Shen, ILRF’s senior legal and policy analyst and author of the report. “ The conclusions are disturbing given the World Bank is a specialized agency of the U.N. and touts itself as a global development actor that respects human rights and the rule of law.”
The ILRF timed the release of the report to coincide with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly where the group said the UN will debate implementation of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.
“Uzbek human rights defenders are waiting to see whether the U.N. will finally address a festering problem that has affected millions around the world: accountability of international organizations for the harms they inflict upon local communities,” the ILRF charged.
The report recommends that the World Bank and its member states and officers consider implementing comprehensive reforms needed to ensure the bank “no longer contributes to the perpetration of human rights abuses in countries where it operates.
Among the reforms it is recommending are: a transparent and “rights-centered” loan process, a change to the structure and function of the inspection panel and an amendment to the “political prohibition provisions of the bank’s articles of agreement.”
The ILRF report also urged the establishment of a U.N.-led accountability mechanism empowered with issuing binding decisions related to any harm caused to local communities by bank-financed projects.