How companies profit from forced labour in Xinjiang
'They told her that if she didn’t sign, she would be sent back to the camp.'
Dr Darren Byler
Beginning in late 2016, Chinese authorities in Xinjiang rounded up hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other minorities in vast internment camps, where they were subjected to political indoctrination, and in some cases, physical and psychological abuse.
In late 2018, the Xinjiang government declared these camps, what it calls “vocational skills education and training centers,” as the new “carrier” of the economy.
In the name of providing “Xinjiang aid” and “poverty alleviation,” Chinese companies have set up thousands of factories across Xinjiang where they benefit from not only state subsidies but also cheap and docile sources of labour.
Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities are being released from re-education camps only to be forcefully re-interned in re-education industrial parks.
Two middle-aged Kazakhs, Yerzhan Kurman and Gulzira Auelkhan, spent months inside one of Xinjiang’s re-education camps before being transferred to a glove factory inside a new industrial park in Ghulja city.
This factory was established by the Luye Shuozidao Trading Company, a manufacturer based in Baoding city, Hebei province, with factory boss Wang Xinghua telling state TV:
Yerzhan and Gulzira were paid 600 RMB per month (US$100), less than half the minimum wage, for the first three months of their “apprenticeship,” plus 1.4 cent per pair of gloves assembled.
In the end, their pay was also docked for food expenses and other services – netting US$50 for a month’s work, or less than 20 percent of the state’s mandated minimum wage.
They weren’t permitted to leave the factory grounds without permission and were constantly monitored by guards and cameras. The system is enforced by a complex web of technological surveillance that includes teachers, guards, and police that monitor the populace.
Their evenings were spent learning Mandarin Chinese under the watchful eye of government officials.
As an industrialist acting as a proxy for the reeducational state, General Manager Wang knew Yerzhan and Gulzira were powerless to resist. Any slowdown in production or overt resistance would result in their replacement with other detainees, and their possible return to other forms of detention.
He could treat them as he wanted – perhaps in a manner that is similar to a slave owner in 19th century America – protecting his investment while exploiting them for profit.
The gloves Yerzhan and Gulzira stitched together sell from up to US$24 per pair on the international market, including by the up-scale Hong Kong boutique Bread n Butter, at least 10 times higher than the price workers are paid per pair.
This system of expropriation—a style of state-authorized theft—is justified by the rhetoric of charity, of “aiding Xinjiang.” Han factory bosses are selflessly gifting former re-education detainees with “cultural capital” and “life skills,” which includes industrial discipline, Chinese language skills, and other Han-defined norms.
While Yerzhan and Gulzira managed to eventually escape – with the help of relatives back in Kazakhstan – other former detainees are there to replace them.
The goal of the internment factories is to turn Kazakhs and Uyghurs into a docile yet productive working class — one without the social welfare afforded the rights-bearing Han working class. This system of controlled labor is, in the words of the state, “carried” forward by a massive internment camp system, a mechanism that ensures that this new class of interned laborers cannot organize as a class for themselves. The only thing that protects Turkic Muslim workers from exploitation and violence is the good will of their Han managers.