ILO Reports “Deep Concerns” About Labor Coercion, Discrimination in Xinjiang

On Friday, the International Labor Organization (ILO) released its annual report on member nations’ compliance with international labor standards. The 870-page report, written by a 20-person committee of independent international experts, includes a substantial section describing the ILO’s “deep concerns” about China’s “discriminatory” labor policies in Xinjiang. The report details various “coercive measures” indicative of forced labor, adding to the growing body of evidence of human rights abuses in the region.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITCU), which monitors global compliance with the ILO’s Fundamental Workers’ Rights, provided evidence for the ILO report. Al Jazeera described the ITUC’s findings regarding the Chinese government’s widespread and systematic use of forced labor programs in Xinjiang and beyond:

Some 13 million members of the ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang are targeted based on their ethnicity and religion, the ITUC said, adding that Beijing justified its methods in a context of “poverty alleviation”, “vocational training”, “reeducation through labour” and “de-extremification.”

A key feature of China’s programme is the use of forced labour in or around internment or “re-education” camps housing some 1.8 million Uighur and other Turkic or Muslim peoples in the region. The abuses take place in or around prisons and workplaces across Xinjiang and other parts of the country, according to the ITUC.

Life in “re-education centres” or camps is characterised by extraordinary hardship, lack of freedom of movement, and physical and psychological torture, according to the ITUC. It also alleges prison labour in cotton harvesting and the manufacture of clothing and footwear.

Outside Xinjiang, Uighur workers live and work in segregation, are required to attend Mandarin classes and are prevented from practising their culture or religion, ITUC alleges. [Source]

Referencing both the evidence submitted by the ITUC and Chinese government documents, the ILO report determined that the government’s labor policies exhibited discrimination and “coercive measures” against ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang:

[T]he Committee notes that training facilities that house the Uyghur population and other Turkic and Muslim minorities separate them from the mainstream educational and vocational training, vocational guidance and placement services available to all other groups in the region throughout the country at large. Such separation may lead to active labour market policies in China being designed and implemented in a manner that generates coercion in the choice of employment and has a discriminatory effect on ethnic and religious minorities. Photographs of the facilities, equipped with guard towers and tall surrounding walls topped with barbed wire further reinforce the observation of segregation.

[…] The Committee is bound to observe, however, that the employment situation of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China provides numerous indications of coercive measures many of which arise from regulatory and policy documents.

[…] The Government’s references to significant numbers of “surplus rural labour” being “relocated” to industrial and agricultural employment sites located inside and outside Xinjiang under “structured conditions” of “labour management” in combination with a vocational training policy targeting deradicalization of ethnic and religious minorities and at least in part carried out in high-security and high surveillance settings raise serious concerns as to the ability of ethnic and religious minorities to exercise freely chosen employment without discrimination. Various indicators suggest the presence of a “labour transfer policy” using measures severely restricting the free choice of employment. These include government-led mobilization of rural households with local townships organizing transfers in accordance with labour export quotas; the relocation or transfer of workers under security escort; onsite management and retention of workers under strict surveillance; the threat of internment in vocational education and training centres if workers do not accept “government administration”; and the inability of placed workers to freely change employers.

[…] The Government is also requested to provide detailed information, including disaggregated statistical data, on the nature of the different vocational education and training courses offered, the types of courses in which Uyghur minorities have participated, and the numbers of participants in each course, as well as the impact of the education and training on their access to freely chosen and sustainable employment. [Source]

The report’s findings met with condemnation from the Chinese government and affirmation from the American and British governments. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin criticized the evidence used in the report as being “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 U.S. State Department and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh issued statements calling on the Chinese government to follow the report’s recommendations and end its use of forced labor in Xinjiang. Britain’s ambassador in Geneva, Simon Manley, said that the report showed further evidence of the scale and severity of human rights violations in Xinjiang.

The ILO report’s focus on discrimination (as opposed to forced labor) in scrutinizing China’s labor policies appears to be a strategic decision, given the ILO’s limited jurisdiction over China. While China is a founding member of the ILO, it has not ratified the conventions on forced labor, which prevents the organization from initiating supervisory mechanisms against China on those grounds. In a prescient piece for The Diplomat in August 2020, former U.S. representative to the ILO Andrew Samet described the ILO’s alternative methods for pressuring the Chinese government over its labor policies in Xinjiang:

Consider one: In 2006 China ratified ILO Convention 111 barring discrimination in employment. The ILO could investigate China’s compliance with this convention regarding the employment of ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs. This would permit a serious and detailed review of the labor violations against these communities.

Under Article 26 of the ILO Constitution, any of the EU governments, all of which have ratified ILO Convention 111, including […] France, could initiate the procedure. (The United States has not ratified Convention 111 — although it has been on the U.S. Senate’s treaty calendar since 1998 – so it could not. Maybe the Senate might want to consider finally acting on that convention now?) Employer and trade union delegates to the ILO could also initiate procedures challenging China’s compliance with Convention 111 since different rules apply to them.

Using this procedure, the ILO can establish a Commission of Inquiry that gathers evidence, hears testimony, and issues a public report detailing its findings and recommendations. The failure of a member state to implement such recommendations can lead to a decision by the ILO to authorize sanctions by member states, as happened in the case involving forced labor in Myanmar in 2000. [Source]

Adding to the spotlight on the Chinese government’s discrimination against minorities in Xinjiang is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Ghulja Massacre. In February 1997, Uyghur protesters in Ghulja took to the streets against discriminatory policies prohibiting Uyghur cultural gatherings known as “meshrep.” Armed security forces responded by detaining and killing hundreds of people, and launched a year-long operation to hunt down those involved. News of the crackdown slowly spread when a video of the events was smuggled out of Xinjiang and aired in the UK. In The Diplomat, Zubayra Shamseden, Chinese outreach coordinator at Uyghur Human Rights project, recounted the abduction and torture of her family members following both the Ghulja Massacre and amid the ongoing human rights abuses of the present day:

Every time I see the deep, round scars on her wrists and arms, I think of the blood flowing out of the holes that made them, dripping onto the floor of that grim torture room in the Ghulja city police station, as she is tortured to confess to crimes that do not exist. She is Saliha, my sister, one of thousands of youths in Ghulja whose lives turned into a nightmare after the Ghulja massacre.

[…] She spent one month there, and to this day has not described everything that happened to her. She was released after a Chinese police chief was given a sizable bribe. We signed an agreement that Saliha was to stay within a six-kilometer radius of her house and be mindful that she was under watch 24/7. In effect, she was under house arrest.

[…] When Saliha and I heard our other sister Mesture and her family were sent to concentration camps in Ghulja in 2016, we were horrified; Saliha in particular became ill upon hearing the news. The terms “taken away,” “arrested,” or “detained” all equate to termination for us.

[…] In particular, those brave women who survived China’s atrocities – like Saliha, Mihrigul Tursun, Tursinay Ziyawdun, Gulbahar Jelilova, Gulbahar Hatiwaji, Zumret Dawut, Rukiya Perhat, Sayragul Sautbay, Kalbinur Sidik, and many more unknown Uyghur and Kazakh women – need to be supported and believed. Their stories are weapons in the struggle against state brutality. By listening to them, we have the power to stop the atrocities in East Turkestan and everywhere else in the world. [Source]


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