A trafficking jam: How can China better address the serious problem of labour trafficking?

Guest Blogger: Sophia Kagan, Castan Centre Honorary Associate

Sophia Kagan - Photo

‘Why are you focusing on a problem that affects so few people?’ asked my interviewee, an academic in rural migrant issues. ‘Even the media don’t bother reporting it – that’s how small an issue it is’.

We are discussing trafficking for forced labour in China and my interviewee is convinced that the government is taking care of the issue ‘We have a strong government – a large number of staff, large expenditure. The government is like our parent, providing for our needs and protecting us.’ ‘They’ wouldn’t let this sort of thing happen, he implies confidently.

But the further my research on trafficking for labour exploitation in China (funded by a generous grant from the Finkel Foundation) takes me, the more I realize that my interviewee was wrong. Indeed, my inventory of international and national media articles, NGO reports and interviews with experts on labour trafficking suggests that it is a serious problem in China that affects thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people. Of course, even were it to affect a small number, it would still be worthy of attention given the heinous nature of the crime. But with such a large number of victims, it is clearly an issue that deserves action. The obstacles to better prosecution of offenders and protection of victims are, however, manifold. As evidenced by my interviewee, and also many other Chinese I spoke to, one of the reasons is a lack of constant public pressure to address the issue. This situation is caused partly by relatively little knowledge of labour trafficking (and thus the belief that relatively few people are affected), and partly by the opinion that it is a lower level of crime – not reaching the severity of sexual exploitation or child abduction and closer in nature to a labour dispute with an employee.

What is trafficking for labour exploitation?

Trafficking in persons is defined by the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which boasts wide ratification with 152 States Parties. Trafficking is defined as:

‘the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve… [consent]’;

In the case of non-sexual labour, the definition covers ‘forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, [or] servitude’.

How big is the problem?

Assessing the incidence of trafficking and forced labour is made difficult by two things – first the secrecy of data in China, particularly with regard to crimes that have a ‘negative impact on the public’ (such as trafficking, and forced labour). The second reason is that even where the government chooses to release statistics on trafficking, these are usually ‘lump’ statistics and cover only victims who are women and children.  While the statistics do not include men, they do include illegal adoption (which is not covered by the international definition of trafficking). Thus, we know that over a 2.5 year period from 2009-2011 there were 16,137 cases of trafficking in women, 11,777 cases of trafficking in children, and 9,007 suspects arrested, but we have no clear image of how many of these were for labour trafficking, how many were victims of prostitution (not covered by the definition of ‘trafficking for labour exploitation’ as it is commonly used) and how many were abducted babies. Numerous media reports have documented a number of ‘slavery scandals’, from the release of 568 forced labourers being kept against their will in an illegal brick-kiln, to over a thousand child labourers trafficked from the poor west of the country to the factories on the east coast. Trafficking for labour exploitation is also thought to be prevalent amongst illegal foreign workers due to the high rates of irregular migration – just one Chinese town on the porous border with Vietnam had over 10,000 Vietnamese illegal immigrants – but again, data is scarce.

Is the problem with the legislation?

Partially yes. The Chinese legislation on trafficking and forced labour is somewhat ambiguous. It prohibits trafficking of women and children, but limits the scope to trafficking for purpose of sale, rather than exploitation. It criminalizes forced labour of anyone, but appears to limit this to cases of abduction and kidnapping, eschewing more modern forms of trafficking such as fraud, deception, abuse of power, and abuse of position of vulnerability covered by the international definition.

Furthermore, the Chinese legal and public security system has traditionally treated human trafficking as a criminal problem and thus counter-trafficking efforts have focused on criminalization of the practice rather than addressing victim protection issues. This has begun to change in recent years and the National Action Plan on Combating Trafficking in Women and Children (2008-2012) (‘NPA’), released at the end of 2007, was an important step in addressing the needs to victims. (The next 5 year plan on trafficking is being eagerly awaited to see if it expands the definition of trafficking).

What about enforcement?

Without data on the number of investigations and convictions it is of course impossible to accurately assess the degree to which anti-trafficking and forced labour provisions are being enforced. However, the number of high profile media reports of police failing to investigate, and prosecutors failing to press charges in cases where prima facie evidence points to a breach of the criminal law suggests that enforcement is an issue. Indeed, often investigations are initiated after long periods of inaction by local law enforcement and appear sporadic, rather than as part of a consistent prosecution strategy.

Why the poor enforcement? One of the reasons is that ‘labour exploitation’ is a sensitive topic in China – this phrase was used by Chairman Mao in denouncing the west for exploiting the working class. Secondly, labour trafficking is eclipsed in attention by the illegal adoption of children, particularly of boys. As such, almost all the work of the high profile Anti-Trafficking Unit is centred around illegal adoption – considered a more serious crime. This paradigm of labour trafficking is common in many countries, and is often blamed on the media’s perpetuation of the ‘iconic’ victim of trafficking – a vulnerable sexually exploited woman in need of rescue (in the Chinese example, it is the helpless child), which excludes, in particular, male victims and victims of non-sexual forced labour.

So what can be done?

First, the Chinese government could clean up its legislation – expand the definition of trafficking to men, and broaden the scope of activities (incorporating more subtle forms of coercion). Second, it could make government policy more clear by mandating a renewed push on all forms of labour trafficking in the upcoming National Plan of Action on Trafficking. Finally, it could improve enforcement of legislation by front-line staff who come into contact with victims of trafficking – including police, immigration officials, shelter staff and labour inspectors. This could begin by upscaling specialised training, already being undertaken on a small scale by organizations such as the UN Interagency Project on Human Trafficking and the International Organization for Migration, and by introducing special incentives for police and government officials to investigate alleged breaches.

Labour trafficking is a worldwide problem, hidden in workplaces around the world (including in Australia and many Western countries). China has made commendable efforts to fight this crime, but much more can still be done.

Sophia Kagan was awarded the Finkel Foundation ‘Field to Journal’ Research grant in 2011-12 to produce an academic paper on labour trafficking in China. She is a former Monash BA/LLB student. From 2010-2011, she was based in Beijing as a program officer with the International Labour Organisation, working on a capacity building project to improve the rights of young rural-urban Chinese migrants. She is now completing a Masters program at the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

One response to “A trafficking jam: How can China better address the serious problem of labour trafficking?”

  1. How long did it require you to post “A trafficking jam: How
    can China better address the serious problem of labour
    trafficking? | Castan Centre for Human Rights Law”? It features quite a bit of high-quality information and facts.
    Appreciate it ,Dominik

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