ILO's experts strongly criticize China on forced labour
Yesterday, the ILO’s independent Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) issued its annual report of cases brought by the ILO’s membership of governments and workers’ and employers’ organizations. The 870-page document includes keenly awaited comments on serious allegations brought by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in late 2020 of the systematic use of forced labour in agriculture and industry targeting Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region of China.
China has not ratified the ILO forced labour Conventions. The ITUC therefore brought allegations relating to Conventions that China has ratified that also deal with aspects of forced labour, including: the Employment Policy Convention (No. 122) and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (No.111).
After careful review of the evidence provided by the ITUC and the responses of the Chinese government, the Committee concluded that there existed multiple areas of concern regarding Beijing’s policies and adherence to these Conventions. China firmly denies that it uses forced labour or discriminates against minorities, describing the allegations as “untrue and politically motivated.” As it has in other fora, in its response to the CEACR, the Chinese government maintains that the relocation of the poor for work and training is a legitimate part of its successful national poverty alleviation programme.
"NUMEROUS INDICATIONS OF COERCIVE MEASURES"
Benefits of poverty alleviation efforts notwithstanding, the report sharply criticizes the use of “labour transfer” policies as restricting the free choice of employment in violation of Convention 122. The Committee stresses that the employment situation of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China indeed “provides numerous indications of coercive measures, many of which arise from regulatory and policy documents.” This includes “government-led mobilisation of rural households with local townships organising transfers in accordance with labour export quotas; the relocation of transfer of workers under security escort; on-site 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 Committee has demanded further information from the Chinese government on measures taken to address the findings, while concretely asking it to take immediate action to end the use of vocational training centres and education programmes in de-radicalization efforts. The Committee also wants to ensure that vocational training in the Uyghur Autonomous Region is mainstreamed and delivered in publicly accessible institutions.
The comments on Convention 111 on non-discrimination are even more forthright. The Committee expressed “deep concern” in respect to the government’s policy directions and regulations, citing serious problems with numerous laws, regulations and practices that effectively discriminate against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, including profiling them as a group for de-radicalization using labour market institutions like vocational training. Among others, it requests the government to “review and revise its labour legislation to align with the Convention and take steps to repeal provisions imposing de-radicalization duties on enterprises and trade unions; amend national and regional regulations to reorient the mandate of vocational training and education centres from political re-education based on administrative detention and provide information on measures taken to ensure observance of the policy to promote equality of opportunity and treatment of the Uyghurs and other ethnic minority groups when seeking to access employment outside the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.”
Contacted by The Geneva Observer, Sharan Burrow, ITUC Secretary General offered the following reaction to the Committee’s conclusions: “This report clearly underlines the seriousness of the discrimination against Uyghur people and calls for China to change its discriminatory policies and practices. We welcome the fact that the Committee of Experts has decided that this issue must be on the agenda of the ILO Conference (ILC) this June.”
The CEACR report will be reviewed by the International Labour Conference’s Committee on the Application of Standards comprised of ILC delegates. This provides an opportunity to hear from the government and propose further engagement with the ILO to help resolve the compliance issues. While dialogue is the modus operandi of the ILO in situations such as this, it does not exclude the possibility that ILC delegates will present new evidence or lodge additional complaints against China. In the meantime, the ILO Governing Body will continue to review and monitor the government’s responses to the allegations, deciding at a future session whether or not to call for a Commission of Inquiry, a last resort procedure for dealing with serious and continued violations of Conventions. There have only been 13 of these established in the ILO’s 103-year history, most recently for Venezuela. ILO watchers tell us that calling for such a Commission for a major industrial country and permanent member of the Governing Body like China is rather unlikely, although not unprecedented.