China ratifies ILO forced labour conventions

In a move intended to ease tensions over accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang, and ahead of a planned visit to China by UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, on Wednesday (April 20), China finally ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions nos. 29 and 105 on forced labor.

Approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the decision is undoubtedly significant. ILO watchers say, however, that the ratification may not translate into a swift and concrete implementation on the ground – particularly in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where Beijing is accused of resorting to forced labor practices and conducting massive human rights violations against the Uyghur Muslim minority. Beijing has consistently rejected these claims.

In a statement published on the organization’s website, the ILO’s outgoing D-G Guy Ryder welcomed the Chinese legislature’s decision: “By approving these ratifications, China reinforces its commitment to eliminate all forms of forced labor within its jurisdiction, realize work in freedom for its 1.4 billion people, and respect the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work.” The move, he said, “demonstrates China’s strong support for ILO values and reflects its commitment to protect any female or male workers from being trapped into forced labor practices, which have no place nor justification in today’s world.”


The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) also acknowledged Beijing’s decision: “Ratifying the critical ILO conventions against forced labor won’t eradicate slavery overnight in China, but it’s a step forward that will make it easier to hold the government to account. Ahead of a crucial review of China’s policy on the treatment of the Uyghurs at this June’s International Labour Conference we need to see practical measures to respect these rights. Unions, employers, and other governments have the power to influence China on the fundamental freedom from forced labor if we act together. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghur people are affected by this,” ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow told The G|O in a written statement.

In late 2020, ITUC brought allegations of the systematic use of forced labor in agriculture and industry targeting Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region. The ILO’s independent Committee of Experts concluded that multiple areas of concern existed regarding Beijing’s policies.

In ratifying the two conventions, China pledges to eliminate all forms of forced or compulsory labor—including “as a means of political coercion or education or as a punishment for holding or expressing political views or views ideologically opposed to the established political, social, or economic system.”

Ratified ILO conventions are legally binding treaties. However, the organization cannot take any coercive measures to ensure compliance, prompting some experts to question their effectiveness. “Effective protection of labor rights requires a supportive ecosystem with multiple elements, but most of these are missing within the current Chinese politico-legal system. The lack of independent trade unions and free media are a case in point,” Surya Deva, professor of law at Macquarie University in Australia, told the South China Morning Post.

There is broad agreement among China experts that the move was prompted in part by Beijing’s desire to reduce tensions with Europe and revive the discussions around the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). The forced labor issue has been a major point of contention between China and the EU. Last year, the EU suspended seven-year-long talks toward a trade deal with Beijing, and in the short term, yesterday’s (April 20) ratifications will likely do little to reverse this in light of Xi Jinping’s unwillingness to condemn Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: Earlier this month, Josep Borrell, EU foreign policy chief, said that it was not “feasible” to “compartmentalize” trade from the war.