ILO reports “deep concerns” over China’s labour market

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has published its annual report on member countries’ adherence to international labour norms. The ILO’s “Deep concerns” about China’s “discriminatory” labour regulations in Xinjiang are detailed in the 870-page study, which was authored by a 20-member group of independent foreign experts. The research outlines several “coercive methods” that are suggestive of forced labour, contributing to the growing body of proof of human rights violations in the province.

The evidence for the ILO report came from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which monitors global compliance with the ILO’s Fundamental Workers’ Rights. The ITUC’s observations on China’s government’s extensive and systematic use of forced labourprogrammes in Xinjiang and elsewhere were summarized by Al Jazeera.

The ITUC estimates that 13 million ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang are targeted based on their ethnicity and religion, with Beijing justifying its policies as “poverty alleviation”, “vocational training”, “reeducation through labour” and “de-extremification.”

Forced labour in or around containment or “re-education” centres, which house around 1.8 million Uyghur and other Turkic or Muslim peoples in the region, is a crucial part of China’s policy. As per the ITUC, the violations occur in or near jails and enterprises throughout Xinjiang and the rest of China.

According to the ITUC, life in “re-education centres” or camps is marked by extreme deprivation, a limitation of mobility, and physical and psychological torment. It further claims that prison labour was used in cotton harvesting and textile and footwear manufacturing.

The Committee observes that the Uyghur community, as well as other Turkic and Islamic minorities, are separated from conventional educational and vocational training, vocational assistance, and employment services provided to all of the other groups in the region and across the nation. As a result of this division, China’s productive labour market regulations may be devised and constructed in a manner that coerces people into choosing jobs and discriminates against ethnic and religious minorities. Pictures of the institutions, which feature guard towers and high encircling walls covered with barbed wire, add to the sense of seclusion.

ITUC claims that outside of Xinjiang, Uyghur labourers live and work under isolation, are forced to take Mandarin courses, and are unable to practise their traditions and beliefs.

The ILO investigation concluded that the government’s labour policies in Xinjiang were discriminatory and used “coercive tactics” against ethnic and religious minorities, based on both the ITUC’s findings and Chinese official records.

In response to the ITUC charges, China’s government stressed the importance of language training for ethnic minority workers in Xinjiang to improve their language abilities and raise their employability. In reply to complaints that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are not paid the local minimum wage, China stated that the minimum wage system is enforced throughout the country. China said that malicious accusations, that stated that some migrant workers in Xinjiang earn as little as $114 (about 729 yuan) per month are baseless. They further emphasized that Xinjiang’s local government has labour policies that protect workers’ rights and respond to their grievances. China, on the other hand, promised to take steps to increase employer compliance with minimum wage rules and to call on enterprises to adhere to the minimum wage norms.

The government provided detailed data on religious freedom legislation and regulations, claiming that it ensures equality among the country’s 56 ethnic groups. According to the government, China has established regulations that ensure religious freedom and proactively encourage faiths to conform to a communist society.

The contents of the study were met with criticism by the Chinese government and validation by the US and British governments. Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, slammed the report’s findings as false and stated that it is “a tool used by anti-China forces to attack China by smearing Xinjiang.”The Global Times echoed his claim that there are “no discriminatory policies and practices targeting ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.” The US State Department and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh made statements urging China to implement the report’s proposals and stop using forced labour in Xinjiang. The study, according to Britain’s ambassador in Geneva, Simon Manley, “provide new evidence of the scale and magnitude of human rights violations in Xinjiang.”

Following its review of China’s statement, the Committee expressed grave concern and recommended the government to review its national and regional policies to eradicate any distinction, exclusion, or preference that obstructs equality of opportunity.

Given the ILO’s restricted authority over China, the report’s focus on inequality (rather than forced labour) in analysing China’s labour policies seem to be a strategic move. Even though China is a founding member of the ILO, it has not ratified the agreements against forced labour, preventing the organisation from instituting oversight procedures against it. Former US representative to the ILO Andrew Samet outlined the ILO’s alternate approaches for pressing the Chinese government in a foresighted column for The Diplomat in August 2020.

The Committee highlighted the importance of trade unions in encouraging fair opportunities concerning employment without discrimination based on race, national origin, faith, or political beliefs. It urged that Beijing provide detailed and up-to-date statistics on the efforts it has taken to effectively stop all forms of compelled labour.

The 25th anniversary of the Ghulja Massacre has added to the focus on the Chinese government’s bigotry towards minorities in Xinjiang. Uyghur activists in Ghulja marched in the streets in February 1997 to protest oppressive rules that prohibited Uyghur cultural assemblies known as “meshrep.” Many individuals were detained and killed by armed security personnels, who then initiated a year-long search for those responsible. After a video showing the assault was smuggled out of Xinjiang and broadcast in the UK, word of the crackdown progressively circulated.

The Committee also asked Beijing to disclose the vocational education and training programmes which make up part of its poverty reduction efforts focused on the Uyghur Autonomous Region available to the public. As per the Committee, it would also ensure that everyone had accessibility on an equal basis. It also asked the Chinese government to provide analysed statistical data on the nature of different education and training courses offered, as well as their influence on admission and the influence on type of employment.

Meanwhile, the US stated that it wants to engage with its foreign alliance partners “to end forced labour and strengthen international action against the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”The State Department stated on its official website“Over the last four years, the People’s Republic of China has carried out a mass detention and political indoctrination campaign against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang), a large region in western China.”