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GENEVA – The International Finance Corporation (IFC), the finance arm of the World Bank, was evasive when Apparel Insider put a series of questions to it about its backing for cotton projects in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan has become notorious for its forced and child labour in cotton picking and other sectors and, while the latter has – allegedly – been eradicated, and the former drastically reduced, serious questions still remain. Even a recent report by the International Labour Organisation, which has strong links with the IFC, found that more than 100,000 Uzbek citizens were forced to pick cotton in the most recent harvest, while Apparel Insider understands that another soon-to-be released study by a civil society organisation will show forced labour remains a serious issue in Uzbekistan.

We put questions to the IFC in the wake of a recent Uzbekistan delegation to the US, led by Deputy Prime Minister Tanzila Narbayeva. The group attended the annual meeting of Cotton Campaign global coalition, via meetings in Washington. There, representatives of the White House praised the transformations carried out in the Uzbekistan which are claimed to be promoting the human rights agenda at the state level. The visit is part of a broader charm offensive by Uzbekistan which is pursuing a reformist agenda as it seeks to win inward investment, with cotton and textiles being key target sectors.

It has had significant support from the IFC on this front and, in light of this, we put the following questions to the IFC:

– What is the IFC’s take on the forced labour issue in Uzbekistan and is the IFC of the opinion that forced labour has been completely eradicated?
– Is the IFC aware that forced labour continues in other sectors as well as cotton picking – eg silk production?
– Why does the IFC continue to support projects in Uzbekistan when many apparel brands and retailers have boycotted the country – and many believe Uzbekistan is a rogue state?
– Are investments made by the IFC in Uzbekistan incumbent in anyway on the country’s leaders addressing these very serious accusations?
– Is the IFC ‘jumping the gun’ in terms of offering investment support to Uzbekistan when it is clear that the country has yet to address issues made by leading apparel brands as well as international NGOs and agencies?

Spokesperson Frederick Jones replied to us. Rather than address the questions specifically, he sent us the following statement:

“IFC supports reforms undertaken by the Government of Uzbekistan, with the support of international donors and the International Labor Organization (ILO), to improve labour practices in the cotton sector. IFC is committed to ensuring responsible labor practices in the projects we finance. In this context, IFC is financing a flagship textile project in Uzbekistan spearheaded by private investors who have demonstrated a commitment to help end forced labor and child labor in the cotton sector. IFC also implements an advisory project in Uzbekistan to help cotton farmers improve their production efficiency, safeguard the environment, and improve labor practices. Through this advisory project, IFC supports the modernisation of the agriculture sector in Uzbekistan and helps make it more sustainable.

“The latest ILO findings concluded there was no systematic recruitment of students, teachers, doctors and nurses in the 2018 cotton harvest and that systematic use of child labor has ended. Uzbekistan continues to make progress eradicating forced labor through the implementation of transformational reforms, such as moving from a state-driven development model to a private sector-led economy. In the past two years, the government has liberalised its currency regulations, lifted trade and investment barriers, improved business regulations, and opened markets to attract private sector investment and boost exports.”

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