Database Entry: How companies profit from forced labor in Xinjiang
Internment Destruction of the Family Surveillance Forced Labor Use of technology Restrictions on movement

How companies profit from forced labor in Xinjiang

September 04, 2019
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On November 3, 2018, Erzhan Qurban, a middle-aged Kazakh man from a small village 50 kilometers from the city of Ghulja in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, was released from the camp where he had been held for nine months. He thought that perhaps now he would be free to return to his former life as an immigrant in Kazakhstan. Yet just a few days later, he was sent to work in a glove factory back in Ghulja city.

Since 2017, factories have flocked to Xinjiang to take advantage of the cheap labor and subsidies offered by the reeducation camp system. In fact, in late 2018, the primary development ministry for the region circulated a statement that the camps — or so-called “vocational skills education and training centers” (教育培训中心 jiàoyù péixùn zhōngxīn) — had become a “carrier” (载体 zàitǐ) of the economy. Because of this system, Xinjiang had attracted “significant investment and construction from coast-based Chinese companies.” This was particularly the case in Chinese textile and garment-related industries, since China sources 80 percent of its cotton in Xinjiang. In an effort motivated at least in part by rising labor costs among Han migrant workers on the east coast, by 2023, the state plans to move more than 1 million textile and garment industry jobs to the region. If they succeed, it will mean that as many as one in every 11 textile and garment industry jobs in China will be in Xinjiang.

In a July article, the scholar Adrian Zenz described three primary tracks through which Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are involuntarily assigned to work in the newly built factories. First, many detainees in camps are placed in factories inside or adjacent to camps. Others, as in the case of Erzhan, are assigned to factories in newly built industrial parks or “satellite factories” (卫星工厂 wèixīng gōngchǎng) near their hometowns. Second, some new industrial parks host a mix of detainees and “rural surplus laborers” who are not former detainees. Third, still other coerced workers (particularly women with young children) are assigned to work in satellite factories supplemented by daycare facilities near their hometowns. As Zenz concludes, all three of these tracks result in forms of family separation and dependence on the state and private industry proxies for training and discipline in Chinese-speaking environments. Furthermore, in all cases, Turkic Muslim detainees are forcibly assigned to these positions. Refusing to work could result in their detention. As numerous state documents have noted, refusing “poverty alleviation” (扶贫 fúpín) schemes (a euphemism for the entire reeducation system) is regarded as a sign of resistance and religious extremism.

Although there was much less security in the factory, the detainees were not allowed to leave. “After being in a camp, your ID card would ring whenever you went through metal detectors, and they’d take you to the police station to be interrogated, making it impossible to be free,” Gulzira said. As she told the AFP, every night after work she and other detainees were taken to a makeshift dormitory about three kilometers away. The blue-roofed buildings, which had been inspected and approved by Party Secretary Pan Daojin several months before the detainees were transferred to the factory, were built on the soccer field of a local high school.

In the dormitory, detainees were permitted to walk around the campus of the high school, but they were not permitted to leave the premises. According to reporting from the Globe and Mail, the workers “received readings in the factory before work and, at day’s end, 45-minute Chinese lessons in the dormitory, where they were watched at night by an official.

Both Erzhan and Gulzira were permitted to briefly visit their families after lunch on Saturdays. A company bus would ferry them back and forth from the dormitory to their home villages. A month into their “training,” however, they found out that these trips were quite costly. Bosses at the factory, such as General Manager Wang, told them that because of the expense of the shuttle service and their food expenses, their 600-yuan salary would be slashed in half. Erzhan later recalled, “I worked on a production line for 53 days, earning 300 yuan ($40) in total.”

Since the factories function as an extension of the camp system, outside the rule of law, prevention of worker abuse depends on the moral code of people like General Manager Wang. He knew just as well as Erzhan or Gulzira that if they complained or resisted in any way, he could replace them with other detainees. In December 2018, managers at the factory threatened Gulzira in order to get her to sign a one-year work contract. They told her that if she didn’t sign, she would be sent back to the camp.

Photo Captions:

According to a state-sponsored report, on August 15, 2017, 1,805 minority herders and farmers entered the new industrial park and “put on leather shoes” to become industrial workers.
Front Commander and Ili Prefecture Party Secretary Pan Daojin (center) inspects internment factory dormitory construction with the Nantong “Xinjiang Aid” Working Group in May 2018.