UN expert reports on forced Labor of Muslim Minorities in China

A United Nations slavery expert has found claims of forced labor in Xinjiang to be “reasonable,” in one of the clearest critiques of China’s human rights practices from within the world body.

Tomoya Obokata, the UN’s special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, said in a report that the involuntary nature of China’s employment programs in Xinjiang, which means new frontier in Mandarine but the Uyghur’s call East Turkistan, indicated forced labor, even if they did improve job opportunities for some minorities. The findings were based on an “independent assessment of available information,” including stakeholder submissions, victim testimony and government accounts. 

“The special rapporteur regards it as reasonable to conclude that forced labor among Uyghur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing has been occurring in the East Turkistan Uyghur Autonomous Region of China,” Obokata’s report said. Similar policies were in place in Tibet, according to the report, which was dated July 19 and posted on Obokata’s Twitter feed Tuesday.

The report on global slavery concerns was addressed to the Human Rights Council and is separate from an assessment on East Turkistan expected to be soon published by UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. Uyghur scholars have urged Bachelet to release her report after a widely criticized trip to China in May that the rights chief has since acknowledged faced “limitations.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed the report Wednesday, saying the special rapporteur had abused his power to “patently smear China and act as a political tool of anti-China forces.” 

“There has never been forced labor in Xinjiang,” Wang said at a regular news briefing in Beijing. “The Chinese government follows a people-centered approach. We pay great attention to protecting the rights and interests of workers.”

China has denied forced labor allegations from the US and other governments, calling them the “lie of the century,” and last week submitted two ratified International Labor Organization treaties on the practice. “The government of China has once again made clear its resolute position on opposing and fighting against forced labor,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular news briefing Monday.

The US has been developing measures to punish China over its human rights practices in East Turkistan, including the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. The legislation, which took effect in June, bans the import of anything produced in Xinjiang unless companies can provide “clear and compelling evidence” it wasn’t made with forced labor.

“This is an important conclusion by the top UN expert on this issue in the world,” said Cockayne, a former professor at the University of Nottingham. “The question of where the commissioner’s report is, when we will get to see that, is a critical one.”

Obokata is a professor of international law and human rights at Keele University and specializes in transnational organized crime, human-trafficking and modern slavery. He was appointed as the special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery in March 2020.

Obokata’s report outlined two labor systems in Xinjiang, including one in which minorities were detained and subjected to work placements to give them vocational skills, education and training. Separately, surplus rural laborers are transferred into secondary- or tertiary-sector work as part of a poverty-alleviation program.

“Given the nature and extent of powers exercised over affected workers during forced labor, including excessive surveillance, abusive living and working conditions, restriction of movement through internment, threats, physical and/or sexual violence and other inhuman or degrading treatment, some instances may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity, meriting a further independent analysis,” Obokata’s report said.

Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a leading critic of China’s Xinjiang policies, said that the rapporteur’s report set a “very important” precedent. “It would be awkward if Bachelet’s report says something to the contrary,” Zenz said.

“If the government tells you to work, you go.” says Uyghur laborer, Aksu, China. People belonging to ethnic, cultural, and religious groups in northwestern China, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Hui, are currently the target of the largest organized detention of an ethno-religious minority the world has seen since World War II. Since 2017, over one million have been detained.

Detainees are made to work under constant surveillance, with assigned minders and no freedom to leave. Their forced labor contributes to the production of goods for numerous multinationals.

Ethnically and culturally distinct from China’s majority Han population, most Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Hui are Muslim, and their languages—with the exception of the Hui—are unrelated to Mandarin and Cantonese. They have long been persecuted for their ethnicity by the government, which has repressed their language, religion, and culture along with settling millions of Han Chinese in the Uyghur Region.  Racial discrimination against Muslims is commonplace.

In recent years, however, the government’s efforts to oppress and forcibly assimilate people from Turkic and Muslim-majority ethnic groups, like Uyghurs, have expanded dramatically.

Survivor accounts, leaked official documents, and satellite imagery confirm that the Chinese government is subjecting hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui, and other Turkic and Muslim people to systematic forced labor in detention camps, prisons, and factories. Forced loyalty to the Communist party, renunciation of Islam, constant surveillance, and torture are among the other horrifying conditions that they face. Experts argue that forced labor is now so widespread in the Uyghur Region that all goods produced there should be considered tainted.

This year, reports revealed that the forced labor of Uyghurs has been expanded beyond the Uyghur Region, with at least 80,000 Uyghurs transferred to factories across China where they cannot leave, are constantly surveilled, and must undergo “ideological training” to abandon their religion and culture.

Recent video evidence shows that some of these transfers occurred earlier this year, when much of China was under lockdown as a result of the expanding COVID-19 outbreak. This means these laborers were forced to work and exposed to the virus while much of the country’s population sheltered at home.

Few detainees are charged with any crime but rather are targeted simply for practicing their Muslim faith. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination states that Muslim minorities are now “treated as enemies of the State based on nothing more than their ethno-religious identity.”Analysts have argued that the Chinese government’s use of forced labor as part of an effort to forcibly assimilate an ethnic group and eliminate a culture and religion sets it apart from more common forms of forced labor and could make the government guilty of crimes against humanity. Some have even described the government’s actions as cultural genocide.

The forced labor of Uyghurs and other people from Turkic or mainly Muslim ethnic groups has become a significant part of the Chinese economy. A complex system of buying and selling their labor has developed, with many brokers and local officials advertising “government sponsored workers” online.

Countless Western companies are also profiting from this system of forced labor in their supply chains. Over 20 percent of the global apparel’s cotton supply is grown in Uyghur Region, with 84 percent of China’s supply grown in the province. Recent reports implicate at least 83 companies, in numerous different industries, in profiting from the forced labor.

The Huafu Fashion Co. mill in Aksu, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, claims to make yarn that eventually finds its way into clothes for Western fast fashion brands More than 4,000 Uyghurs work there in isolation and under strict “military-style management,” as stated by the local human resources bureau.

The Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co. Ltd. in Laixi City, Shandong is one of the world’s largest manufacturers for a major sneaker company. As of 2020, around 600 Uyghur people worked in the factory. These workers did not come by choice, are forbidden from leaving, and cannot practice their religion. Photographs of the factory show watchtowers, razor wire, and inward-facing barbed wire fences.

A local government document from September 2019 reported that 560 Uyghur labourers were transferred to work in factories in central Henan province—including a Foxxcon Technology Co. Ltd.  facility in Zhengzhou. Zhengzhou is known locally as ‘iPhone city’ because half of the world’s iPhones are reportedly made there.

In May 2021, through the Coalition, we released an academic report conducted by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University that revealed the shocking fact that almost the entire global solar panel industry is implicated in the Uyghur forced labor system. Almost half of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply, a primary material in solar panel production, is sourced from the Uyghur Region. Further, the world’s four largest solar panel suppliers all source polysilicon from manufactures implicated in the Uyghur forced labor system.

Apple has also been supplied employee uniforms as recently as June 2020 by the Esquel group which was sanctioned in 2020 by the U.S. government over forced labor at a subsidiary firm in the Uyghur Region. Apple keeps saying it has “zero tolerance” for forced labor so why do they continue to work with companies implicated in modern slavery?

Through garment supply chains, the entire fashion industry, including products sold by Western brands, are potentially tainted. We are calling on leading brands and retailers to ensure that they are not supporting or benefiting from this pervasive and extensive system of forced labor.

Nike, Uniqlo and Zara, like almost all companies, claim to prohibit forced labor in their supply chains, yet offer no credible explanation as to how they can do this considering their links to a region where all goods are likely to be tainted by forced labor. By continuing to operate in and maintaining links to the region, fashion brands like these are complicit in what many have widely recognized as crimes against humanity.

The official sportswear uniform supplier of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Anta Sports, is among many apparel companies around the world that source cotton from the Uyghur Region. In March 2021, Anta Sports defiantly declared: “We have always bought and used cotton produced in China, including Xinjiang cotton, and in the future we will continue to do so.”

The Coalition engaged the IOC privately for eight months in 2021 to seek information and assess assurances about due diligence steps that the IOC may have taken to ensure that Olympic-branded merchandise is not made with Uyghur forced labor. On December 21, 2021 the IOC rejected the Coalition’s proposed terms for substantive, constructive, and mutually respectful two-way dialogue.

The Chinese government has defended the camps where cotton and garments are produced as voluntary “vocational training centers” that serve to provide professional opportunities and eliminate extremism. But the stories above are just some among the mounting evidence that reveal this system of modern slavery for what it is.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.