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White gold of Uzbekistan

Updated: Jan 12, 2019

In the 49th Asian Development Bank (ADB) Annual Governors Meeting (AGM) Civil Society Panel 2 entitled Grassroots Perspective on Integrating Core Labor Standards in ADB. Mr. Souparna Lahiri, International Committee Member of NGO Forum on ADB discussion was anchored to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. His discussion gave emphasis on-

  • Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining (Convention No. 87 & No. 98)

  • The elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour (Convention No. 29 & No. 105)

  • The effective abolition of child labour (Convention No. 138 & No. 182)

  • The elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation (Convention No. 100 & No. 111)

Mr. Lahiri also emphasised that ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work are universal and that they apply to all people in all States - regardless of the level of economic development. It particularly mentions groups with special needs, including the unemployed and migrant workers. It recognises that economic growth alone is not enough to ensure equity, social progress and to eradicate poverty.


In 1998 ILO Declaration on Core Labour Standards specifically poses to international organisations, such as development banks, to promote an atmosphere conducive to the achievement of CLS. An assessment of compliance with CLS helps refine the development banks’ agenda and poverty reduction strategies. In light of this, it was the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which recognised the observance of the CLS in bank operations. The ADB’s board of directors in 2001 adopted a Social Protection Strategy.

“In the design and formulation of its loans, ADB will comply with the internationally recognised core labour standards”.

By 2002 the ADB signed a memorandum of understanding with the ILO for operational collaboration in taking forward ADB’s commitment to CLS. While, the Social Protection Strategy of ADB includes safeguards related to the environment, involuntary resettlement and indigenous and tribals, it does not include any labour safeguards or operational manual to promote CLS in ADB operations.

In the same panel Claude Akpokavie, Senior ILO Adviser explained that this declaration is not an 'option’ that can be implemented only if ‘wanted’. This is a right for every worker, all over the world.

UZBEKISTAN’S WHITE GOLD Cotton in Uzbekistan is referred to as ‘white gold’ because it generates an estimated

US$1 billion annually through the export of around 850,000 tonnes of cotton every year, but despite these profits, those ordered to pick the cotton remain impoverished as workers are paid little, if anything. The situation was aggravated when the Amu Bukhara Irrigation System (ABIS) was proposed and approved with the goal to ensure sustainable and reliable water supply for irrigated agriculture in the main command area of 250,000 ha and drinking water for 725,000 population. That is at least what the Asian Development Bank (ADB) together with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) “intended” to accomplish when they gave out the US$146.00 Million loan to the Uzbekistan government in 2013.

Two years after, October 2015, two boys ages 2 and 17, died in circumstances related to Uzbekistan’s fall cotton harvest. For decades despite the welcoming notions from countries around the world regarding the need to refine labour standards to protect the workers, the government of Uzbekistan has forced adults and initially children as young as 10 to pick cotton under harsh conditions during harvest season. Although the younger children are no longer mobilised in large numbers, local administrations routinely send secondary students (15-17-year-olds) to the fields in some districts.

Matthew Fischer-Daly, Cotton Campaign Coordinator explained that Uzbekistan primarily uses forced labour during the harvest season, around September to October. After much external pressure, the Cabinet of Ministers of Uzbekistan declared its intent to ensure that no one under the age of 18 would participate in the cotton harvest. But this only put adult forced labour into high gear. The 2-year old boy died while his mother picked cotton under threat of losing her job as a kindergarten teacher.

Health care workers and students are among 1 million workers forced to toil long hours in the cotton fields, often without access to clean drinking water and typically work without crucial safety and health gear, exposed to toxic pesticides and dangerous equipment. The working condition is dangerous, people can be left exhausted, suffer from ill-health and malnutrition after weeks of hard labour. Those assigned to work on far-flung cotton farms are forced to stay in makeshift residences in poor conditions with insufficient food and clean drinking water.

How is this even possible when there is already an international law about the rights of workers? Moreover, how can ADB allow this despite its commitment with the ILO for operational collaboration in taking forward ADB’s commitment to CLS?

Daly explained that forced labour system is deeply rooted in the economy of Uzbekistan. The state owns most of the land, leases it to the farmers and imposes cotton production quota. Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev ordered the penalization of farmers that had not fulfilled their state-assigned cotton production quotas, including confiscating property and imprisonment. Failure to meet the annual quota results to penalty for farmers like loss of lands, destruction of non-cotton crops, and/or confiscation of property.

The government controls everything, from income to setting the procurement price of the harvested cotton, which is way lower than the cost of production. The government maintains monopolies, buy and sell all the cotton, making enormous profits not for the benefit of the citizens but for the profit of corrupt private elites.


This is not only a matter of forced labour or coercion. This is also a matter of compliance to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work to which the ADB in 2006 commits itself. The bank promised to work towards the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour in designing and implementing all its projects, it is even stated in its own Core Labor Standard Hand Book, page 39. The bank also claimed that they will not finance production or activities involving harmful or exploitative forms of forced labour or child labour.

Mr. Lahiri in his discussion stated that the Report and Recommendation of the President to the Board (RRP) admits that there are concerns about core labour standards, particularly during the harvest. ADB is committed to supporting adherence to the core labour standards. Suitable loan covenants have been included to ensure such adherence in relation to project activities, and will be monitored during project implementation. ADB will also closely interact with the government, including through policy dialogue, the ILO, and other institutions on this matter. However, the Assurances and Conditions part of the RRP only indicated that The government, the Ministry of Agriculture and Water Resources (MAWR), and the Ministry of Finance have assured ADB that implementation of the project shall conform to all applicable ADB policies including those concerning anticorruption measures, safeguards, gender, procurement, consulting services, and disbursement, as described in detail in the project administration manual and loan documents”, and that the government, the MAWR, and Ministry of Finance have agreed with ADB on certain covenants for the project, which are set forth in the loan agreements.

This statement prompted Human Rights Watch to write a letter to ADB President, Takehiko Nakao, dated September 3, 2013, where in they express their serious concerns regarding the system of employing forced labour in the Uzbek cotton fields and urged the ADB President and Board of Directors to refrain from approving the Irrigation System Rehabilitation Project. But it pushed through the same month of the same year.

With all the CLS violation of the ABIS project, why is it still an ongoing project?

SIDE NOTE. Panel 2 in the 49th ADB AGM also faced the hard truth that the space for CSO’s is shrinking day by day. What is happening to Uzbekistan is an example, citizens are not allowed to organize themselves, express their opinions and demand for their rights, journalists and media persons are going missing as they cover the cotton story of the country, the space for civic engagement is closing—not just in countries that have struggled under repressive or autocratic governments like Uzbekistan, but also in democracies with longstanding traditions of supporting freedom of expression. There is a need to do something.

To watch the video watch here:




Written by Jen Derillo. Jen is NGO Forum on ADB's Program Coordinator for Communications.


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