In China, forced labor is sensitive topic. Years pass between the odd case of forced labor that sees the light of day in local media. Local labor NGOs rarely approach incidents of serious coercion in forced labor terms. Nobody knows the real extent, and surprisingly few, from China as well as abroad, prioritize exploring this issue. Within the last decade, a handful of cases amounting to forced labor in China have been brought to light, all with certain characteristics in common pointing to a need for closer scrutiny.
Brick Kiln Slavery
The first, and worst, was the incident of enslaved young and elderly people as well as adults with disabilities in brick kilns. Over a decade ago, during the summer of 2007, it became publicly known that people – many people – from rural areas were being kidnapped and forced to work in kilns in Shanxi province. The affair was, uniquely, kicked off by parents mobilizing together in search for their missing children. These parents scoured the countryside and, sometimes, found their children working in the kilns.
Chinese media covered the events unfolding and extensively documented the regular, traditional slavery conditions in the kilns, the organized trafficking and how local communities and authorities knew about it — and sometimes were directly involved. Eventually, the national government launched an investigation into the kilns of Shanxi, resulting in inspections of almost 5,000 kilns and rescues of hundreds of enslaved workers, who spoke about abductions, captivity, beatings, and inhumane conditions. In the following years the practice was documented in several other provinces. The practice of forced labor in brick kilns has never been fully eradicated.
”Even if today the archipelago of ’black kilns’ that came to light in 2007 does not exist anymore, that kind of extreme situation periodically resurfaces on the Chinese media,” says Ivan Franceschini, a fellow at the Australian National University who authored a book about the kiln slavery. “In particular, people with mental problems often fall victim to human traffickers and are sold as slave labor to kilns and other harsh realities that rely on a cheap, pliable slave workforce to make a profit.”
Forced Electronics Internships
Other industries also rely on a cheap and pliable workforce amounting to forced labor by the exploitation of a large numbers of student interns from vocational schools. While company-based learning is supposed to be a crucial component of vocational educations, students are forced to accept internships in manufacturing industries — irrespective of the relevance of the industry for the students’ education — under the threat of failing to graduate if they decline.
Whereas such company-school partnerships have been practiced for many years, international attention was raised only in 2012, when forced internships were linked to global electronics supply chains.
“Vocational school students are sent to electronics factories, such as Foxconn and Quanta, to work as ordinary production line workers in the name of compulsory internship. Many, we met, were studying subjects irrelevant to electronics and told about threats by schools that they will not graduate from schools, if they refuse the internships,” says Michael Ma, project manager for Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a Hong Kong based nonprofit behind several investigations.
New cases continue to be documented in electronics factories supplying brands like Apple, Sony, Dell, HP, and Acer. The practice seems unchanged by schools and electronics manufacturers, while brands dodge the issue.
Withheld Wages in Construction
In recent months, because of Chinese New Year on February 16, annual wage arrear protests have peaked because of withheld payments. Especially in construction, wages are withheld for up to a year and together with widespread lack of employment contracts, excessive and illegal overtime, and the dependency on employers for housing and food for many of the unpaid workers could amount to forced labor, I recently argued in an article for openDemocracy. Most construction workers caught up in this practice are rural migrants systematically discriminated because of China’s household registration system (hukou).
“Withholding wages contains a substantial coercive element by itself. In other industries, and countries, such conditions combined are debated as potential indicators of forced labor,” says Matt Friedman, a former UN regional manager of anti-trafficking in Asia.
Half of all construction workers are estimated to have been deprived of payment at least once in their lifetime, according to Chinese scholars and labor groups. Workers rarely protest while construction is ongoing. Easy to replace, they stick to the promise of payment at New Year or at the end of the project.
“What can you do? If you complain while work is ongoing, you get fired and never see any money,” says Chang, a former construction worker-turned activist.
The practice of withholding wages has been going on for decades and is acknowledged by the government. Each year authorities campaign to collect overdue pay. In Zhejiang province alone, $460 million was recovered for distribution among 258,000 workers in 2016. Yet, many more workers are left without assistance. New measures and deadlines are regularly put forward, but enforcement is lacking. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security announced in 2017 that wage arrears would be eradicated in 2020. Recently, in the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a settlement was reached for four China-based construction firms to pay nearly $14 million in back wages and damages to over 2,400 workers.
Forced Domestic Work
In recent years, media and local NGOs have focused increasingly on the abuse of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong, a city with one of the world’s highest densities of foreign domestic workers, comprising 10 percent of its labor market and enjoying some statutory labor rights. The abuses have been addressed mainly through the lenses of trafficking, especially of Indonesian and Philippine women, despite research documenting that as many as one in six foreign domestic workers experience forced labor — of which 14 percent were trafficked.
“The growing momentum of the anti-trafficking movement in Hong Kong must not disregard the importance of forced labor. Trafficking is often the means to forced labor, but forced labor does often exist independently of trafficking. We must consider a response to forced labor alongside a response to trafficking so as to not cause more damage than good in the long term,” says Archana Kotecha, head of legal in Liberty Asia, an anti-slavery organization.
Debt bondage because of illegal and excessive recruitment fees is a main driver. The threat of getting fired, which gives a worker only two weeks to find alternative employment or else leave the country, is a contributing factor.
Profiting on Vulnerability
Despite immense differences in professions, industries, employment relations, and worker backgrounds, the above cases of forced labor have some common features: Workers are vulnerable in their local contexts (youth, elderly, disabled, foreigners, rural migrants). Workers are strongly tied to employers, in the sense that there is a substantial menace of leaving or trying (losing up to a year’s wage, failing to graduate, risking physical abuse or worse). The coercion is persistent and widespread within the respective industries, despite years of awareness raising by NGOs and media.
Given the general sensitivity of labor protests and organizing workers and the clampdowns in recent years on labor NGOs and activists, one might legitimately ask how far such coercive practices penetrate other parts of China’s labor market.
Even though wage arrears in the construction sector account for over one-third of all protests in China registered and published online by China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based organization, many other sectors also face annual protests because of delayed or lack of payments. Though not itself a proof of forced labor, it is a relevant indicator to explore, according to ILO, the UN labor agency.
Forced internships take place in many other industries besides electronics. An intern studying fashion design told SACOM during its recent investigation that “after leaving Quanta [an electronics manufacturer] we’ll be sent to a factory for repairing automobiles.”
And then there is the question of coercive practices in global supply chains. Auditors of multinational companies say, anonymously, that efforts beyond direct suppliers are lacking. The same holds often true for corporate watchdogs trying to shed light on labor conditions among suppliers of Western brands. The risks and difficulties digging into such issues in China entail most often a focus on first-tier suppliers only.
Root causes of forced labor have been debated for years. Poverty is often referred to as a main driver from the “push perspective,” meaning factors that motivate workers, sometimes into far from ideal employment circumstances. However, this was recently expanded by an openDemocracy report stressing four prominent root characteristics of workers: Poverty, understood as the “working poor,” was discussed first but discrimination, limited labor protection, and restrictive mobility are also notable characteristics of workers. The report focuses on global supply chains in general, but its conclusions seem strikingly relevant to explore in a Chinese labor force context, where over 250 million have migrated to work outside their rural districts, are systematically discriminated against because of the hukou system in accessing housing, social, educational, and health support, and are restricted in terms of labor protection and collective bargaining rights.
Protecting the Working Poor
What explains the lack of attention to coercive labor practices in China, the world’s factory floor?
Forced labor is illegal in China, but local authorities such as labor departments and courts rarely have adequate understanding of forced labor indicators, including and especially the aspects of psychological coercion. While local experts note improved labor laws and improved interdepartmental cooperation within authorities, they still are looking for adequate enforcement of existing laws.
Most labor NGOs have limited capacity. Issues are addressed individually and always after the damage has been done — such as lack of pay, compensation for overtime, compensation for workplace injuries — instead of combined as cases of forced labor. Within the dominating, authoritative discourse such issues are addressed as simply labor disputes.
Outside China, there is not much attention either. International attention is scarce. Many human rights organizations do not prioritize modern slavery in terms of forced labor in China because of the challenges of doing investigations on the ground and the long list of other human rights issues in the Chinese context. Anti-slavery organizations mainly focus on trafficking, instead of forced labor, for similar reasons.
The U.S. Department of Labor relies almost solely on decade-old sources for China in its widely-cited list of goods produced by forced labor. In the Global Slavery Index, a high-profile initiative to provide country-by-country estimates of modern slavery, forced labor in China seems not to count for much as sources seem limited.
“The difficulties investigating such issues in China make it hard to document the extent and forms of forced labor there, so opening up for scrutiny has to be the first step to addressing these problems,” says Jakub Sobik, spokesperson for Anti-Slavery International.
Closer scrutiny of serious coercion in China’s labor market is not only justified because of the seeming lack of attention. More important is the apparent lack of adequate protection of the most-exposed workers, because of a lack of capacity among local authorities. A better understanding of forced labor indicators and especially its invisible psychological mechanisms in local contexts would help. Authorities are already taking action, but clearly not enough.
In many Asian countries, and around the world, the concept of psychological coercion is far from effectively understood, since human trafficking has been the most prominent form of exploitation. This has resulted in legislation, policies, and a growing jurisprudence on the subject. Forced labor, along the same continuum of exploitation, has remained undefined in many jurisdictions and is often considered by courts to be a difficult concept to grapple with.
“The concept of psychological coercion is really about those invisible but nevertheless very powerful constraints that limit the ability of a vulnerable worker to seek redress,” says Archana Kotecha of Liberty Asia, referring to constraints such as nonpayment of wages or significant wage deductions, payment of broker fees and the resulting debt bondage, the retention of identity documents and the lack of written terms or existence of terms that are not respected.
“These traits, compounded by the worker’s commitments to his family and the cost of finding new employment, often serve to bind an employee to a particular employer, as the cost of walking away is unaffordable to the worker,” she says.
Peter Bengtsen is an investigative journalist and historian of political and economical ideas.