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What Do China’s Latest Moves Mean for Forced Labor?

Human-rights campaigners warn that China’s ratification of two international treaties on forced labor last week could obfuscate its activities in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where reports of Turkic Muslim persecution have proliferated in recent years.

The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region said that it is “deeply concerned” that Beijing will use the International Labour Organization (ILO) convention ratifications to “appear to be taking a firm stance on forced labor, while continuing to operate the largest mobilization of forced labor in the world today—one based on religion and ethnicity.”

“Indeed, the government of China continues to deny the fact of widespread and systematic forced labor in the Uyghur region and in factories across China employing forced labor transfers from the Uyghur region,” the coalition, whose roster includes Anti-Slavery International, the Clean Clothes Campaign, the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the Worker Rights Consortium, wrote on its website Friday.

“The fact of this state-sponsored forced labor has been documented by the United Nations, the ILO, academic experts, numerous non-governmental organizations and survivors themselves,” it added. “The ratification of these two conventions will be meaningless if the government of China does not work to immediately cease the exaction of forced labor throughout the country.”

China’s decision to sign the forced labor convention and abolition of forced labor convention, which were adopted by ILO members in 1930 and 1957 respectively, arrives amid mounting global concern about the Asian superpower’s persecution of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups, which the governments of Canada, the United States and others have labeled genocide. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly denied the allegations, likening its reeducation camps to “boarding schools” that provide job skills training and stamp out thoughts of religious extremism.

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The move also comes ahead of a visit by the United Nations’ human-rights chief at the invitation of the Chinese government. Michelle Bachelet is expected to visit Xinjiang, Beijing and other locations next month. The UN Office of the Human Rights Commissioner has yet to release a much-anticipated—and long-delayed—report on the Uyghur-rights situation in Xinjiang.

In less than two months, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which President Biden signed into law in December, will go into effect, placing a “rebuttable presumption” that all goods from Xinjiang are made with forced labor and therefore inadmissible to the United States. (Authorities previously banned imports of Xinjiang cotton and cotton-containing items, tomatoes and some solar products.) Other jurisdictions, including Australia, the European Union and the United Kingdom, are planning to button up measures combatting forced labor in supply chains.

The ILO said it welcomes China’s ratification push, calling it a “milestone” on the road toward universal ratification of the forced labor conventions and the realization of Sustainable Development Goal 8, Target 7: taking immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor.

“The move 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,” ILO director-general Guy Ryder said in a statement last week. “I expect these ratifications to create renewed momentum and further efforts by the government and the social partners in China to support human-centered development and decent work in the second-largest economy in the world, in line with the ILO Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work.”

But the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region pointed out that China has yet to ratify the convention that guarantees the right to freedom of association, which is “inextricably” tied with forced labor. “The government of China also continues to deny freedom of association to workers throughout the country, as documented by the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association,” it said.

Convention ratification, the group added, should not serve as a “smokescreen” that allows violations to flourish “in practice.” Governments should continue to pressure Beijing “just as before” to bring about the end of systematic forced labor of Uyghur workers, it said.

“We would particularly urge the European Union not to move forward with the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment until the government of China demonstrates that it has in fact fully dismantled its system of state-sponsored forced labor,” the coalition said. “We also urge corporations to continue to extricate from their supply chains suppliers benefiting from forced Uyghur labor (whether in the Uyghur region or elsewhere in China) and not use the ratification of these conventions to defend continuing to source from a region rife with state-sponsored forced labor.”