China ratifies two international treaties on forced labor

Domestic News

The two conventions were passed by Beijing on April 20, in a move apparently intended to ease tensions over forced labor accusations in Xinjiang.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

China’s top legislature ratified two international treaties on forced labor amid mounting international pressure on human rights abuses in the nation’s western region of Xinjiang.

The two treaties, the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Forced Labor Convention and Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, were passed on April 20 at the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing.

  • The International Labor Organization is a United Nations agency that aims to “set labor standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.”
  • “The elimination of forced labor is a fundamental principle and right at work,” the ILO said in a statement sent to Bloomberg. “As such, ratification of these fundamental conventions by China would be highly significant.”
  • There are eight fundamental conventions on basic work rights established by the ILO. Before the decision, China had ratified four of the conventions (arguably less contentious ones): equal pay, discrimination, minimum age, and child labor.
  • By comparison, the U.S. has ratified only two of the eight fundamental ILO conventions, forced labor and child labor.

The decision comes as part of a pledge to improve labor standards included in negotiations with the European Union (EU), after the bloc suspended Beijing’s seven-year-long talks toward a trade deal last year over tit-for-tat sanctions on forced labor in Xinjiang.

  • The EU in December renewed sanctions that were imposed on four Chinese officials and one entity in March last year, while China has also sanctioned EU counterparts, leading the European Parliament to halt any progress toward ratifying the investment deal.
  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only hardened the EU’s stance toward China, signaling no end to the sanctions in the near future.

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Reports of forced labor in Xinjiang have damaged China’s relations with the West, though Beijing has denounced the charges as baseless and politically motivated.

  • The U.S. declared that the China was committing genocide against the predominantly Muslim ethnic minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang in January 2021.
  • U.S. President Joe Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in December of last year to ban imports of goods from Xinjiang unless companies can prove they weren’t made with forced labor.
  • Earlier this month, Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council released a report stating that the World Bank is “funding a campaign of repression” against the Uyghurs.

Beijing’s decision to sign the ILO conventions comes just ahead of UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s scheduled visit to the country next month in May, which includes a stop in Xinjiang.

Nadya Yeh