China ratifies international labour treaties as scrutiny of treatment of ethnic minorities mounts

File photo taken on October 23, 2010 of a worker picking cotton in northwest China’s Xinjiang region.

China’s lawmakers on Wednesday announced that it ratified two international conventions against forced labour, months after United Nations experts voiced concerns over the country’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities – particularly in the Xinjiang region.

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Beijing’s approvals come as the country faces accusations of widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang, including forced labour.

Rights groups estimate at least one million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in “re-education camps” there – allegations that Beijing roundly rejects.

Officials maintain the camps are vocational training centres aimed at reducing the appeal of Islamic extremism.

London and Washington have been among vocal critics of China’s treatment of minorities in Xinjiang, with the US State Department previously calling on China to “end its genocide and crimes against humanity” in the region.

On Wednesday, China’s top legislature approved the ratification of the International Labour Organization’s Forced Labour Convention, as well as the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, according to official announcements on the National People’s Congress website.

Labour rights have been a fraught issue in China, with a committee of 20 experts appointed by the ILO – a UN agency – taking China to task in its annual report published in February.

The group expressed “deep concern” after assessing the treatment of minorities, and evaluated allegations in late 2020 that Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities were systematically being forced to work in agriculture.

The expert committee called on Beijing to reorient “the mandate of vocational training and education centres from political re-education based on administrative detention”.

China has lashed out at accusations of forced labour as untrue and politically motivated.

Members who ratify the two conventions are obliged to suppress and not use any form of forced or compulsory labour, according information on the ILO’s website.

They should also take measures to secure the “immediate and complete abolition” of such labour.

Beijing had previously been asked to provide detailed information about the steps it was taking to ensure activities at Xinjiang’s vocational training centres were in line with China’s international obligations.

The country is also expecting a visit by UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet in May, in a long-delayed visit that includes a trip to Xinjiang.

There have long been calls for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Xinjiang and publish her office’s findings.

Last year, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to refuse any consideration of a major investment pact between the European Union and China, as long as Chinese sanctions against MEPs and scholars remained in place.

The EU had sanctioned four Chinese officials over suspected human rights violations in Xinjiang and China responded by imposing its own sanctions against European politicians, scholars and research groups.


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