A new UN report details a ‘widespread and systematic programme’ of abuse in Xinjiang as well as China’s vehement denial.
China continues to carry out discriminatory work policies, such as forced labour, impossible production expectations and long working hours, against the Uighurs in its northwest province of Xinjiang, a United Nations committee said on Friday, urging Beijing to bring its employment practices in line with global standards.
The report from the International Labour Organization stressed that China has violated various articles of the Employment Policy Convention of 1964, which Beijing ratified in 1997, including the right to freely choose employment.
The 870-page report, titled Application of International Labour Standards, was an assessment by the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations.
It looks at different countries progress from Congo to Afghanistan in relation to ratifying labour conventions and details abuses in areas like child labour, equality of opportunity, maternity protection, vocational training and more.
The Committee sends the findings of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to governments, details their response and adds its own set of recommendations on top of that.
Findings presented to China
The ITUC alleged that China continues to engage in widespread and systematic “programmes” involving the extensive use of forced labour of the Uighur and other Turkic and Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
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’s 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.
China’s government responded to the ITUC allegations, stressing that language training for ethnic minority workers in Xinjiang is necessary to increase their language skills and boost their employability.
As for the allegations that the Uighur and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are not paid the local minimum wage, China stressed that the minimum wage system applies across the country. The claims that wages of some migrant workers in Xinjiang are as low as $114 (approximately 729 yuan) per month are groundless, China added.
The local government of Xinjiang has labour policies that protect the rights of all workers and address their complaints.
However, Beijing pledged to take steps to strengthen the inspection of employer compliance with minimum wage provisions and call on employers to respect the minimum wage standards.
The government provided detailed data on laws and policies regarding freedom of religion and said that it ensures equality among the 56 ethnic groups living in the country.
A farmer picks cotton on a farm on the outskirts of Hami, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region [File: Reuters]
China has policies ensuring freedom of religion and actively guides religions to adapt to the socialist society, the government said.
The UN’s recommendations
After reviewing China’s rebuttal, the Committee, expressing its deep concern, urged the government to review its national and regional policies with the aim of eliminating all distinction, exclusion or preference that impairs equality of opportunity.
Trade unions must be able to play their roles in promoting equality of treatment in employment and occupation without discrimination based on race, national extraction, religion or political opinion, the Committee stressed.
It urged China to provide detailed updated information on the measures taken to effectively prevent all forms of forced or compulsory labour.
The Committee also requested China make available the vocational training and education programmes “that form part of its poverty alleviation activities focused in the Uyghur Autonomous Region” in publicly accessible institutions. That would allow everyone to benefit from these services on an equal basis, the Committee said.
The Committee also asked the Chinese government to provide disaggregated statistical data, on the nature of the different vocational education and training courses offered as well as the impact of the education and training on access to freely chosen employment.