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Xinjiang Government Continues Controversial "Work-Study" Program
The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) government is continuing a controversial "work-study" program that requires students to spend up to 14 days each year picking cotton and other crops, despite complaints from students and parents. A September 12 Tianshan Net article profiled student and teacher complaints about the work-study program in Changji City, where students in the second year of junior high and above must pick cotton and students in the third grade of elementary school and higher must pick hops in 12-hour shifts at farms within the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC).
The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) government is continuing a controversial "work-study" program that requires students to spend up to 14 days each year picking cotton and other crops, despite complaints from students and parents. A September 12 Tianshan Net article profiled student and teacher complaints about the work-study program in Changji City, where students in the second year of junior high and above must pick cotton and students in the third grade of elementary school and higher must pick hops in 12-hour shifts at farms within the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Some students cannot meet their quota, which is equivalent to picking 22 kilograms a day, and parents have joined their children in the fields to help them harvest this amount, the article reported. The news media also reported parents' complaints about the work-study program in 2005. The work-study program (also called by such names as "labor skills classes," "education practice labor," and "social practice activities") is a required class for XUAR students, who are evaluated on their "attitude toward labor," "labor results," and "grasp of knowledge and skills," according to a September 11 article from the Xinjiang Education Information Net (XEIN). Students' performance in the work-study program influences their promotion to higher grades. Some 800,000 secondary school and university students began their 2006 academic year in September by picking cotton in school-organized work-study programs, according to the XEIN article. As of this year, schools and education departments in the XUAR may no longer make elementary school students in the third grade and higher pick cotton, due to concern for their health and safety, according to an August 16 Tianshan Net article. These students, however, may continue to participate in other work-study activities that "serve society and the community," and "help children form a proper notion of labor." The XUAR government issued an Opinion on Strengthening the Management of Secondary and Elementary School Students' Work-Study Labor Activities (Opinion) on May 8.
Work-study programs exist elsewhere in China, and other provincial-level areas also have issued guidance regulating such work-study or "social practice" programs. A 2005 trial opinion from Shanghai municipality, for example, requires students to spend from at least 7 to 30 days per school year doing "social practice activities," depending on their grade level. The opinion includes a range of activities in the category of "social practice activities," including social service work, but does not rule out students going to physical labor sites to carry out their "social practice activities." Older opinions, such as ones from Anhui and Jilin provinces, more clearly intend that work-study programs involve physical labor to meet crop-harvesting and other production needs. Recent news reports show that some areas outside the XUAR continue to carry out such crop-harvesting activities. In September, over 10 thousand students in the fourth grade and higher in Suzhou District, Jiuquan city, Gansu province, were made to harvest corn, according to a Lanzhou Morning News article posted September 26 on Tengxun News. An official cited in the article said stipulations permitted elementary students to work up to 14 days each year and older students up to 18 days, but that in practice students have not been made to work the full amount.
While the Suzhou District work-study program shares similarities with the program in the XUAR, the XUAR work-study program also reflects some features unique to the region. The central government holds close control over the XUAR economy in part through its directly administered XPCC farms, where cotton is harvested. The central government has placed special focus on supporting the XUAR's cotton industry during its 11th Five-Year Program, according to a February 17 Tianshan Net article. The central government made the decision to compel XUAR students to pick cotton, according to a September 21, 2005, Radio Free Asia (RFA) article.
The XUAR government developed its work-study program to address a labor shortage during the autumn harvest, the August 16 Tianshan Net article reported. The government started its cotton-harvesting work-study program in the mid-1990s, according to this Tianshan Net article and the September 11 XEIN article. In 2005 alone, nearly 1 million students "of all ethnicities" from 2,689 schools harvested cotton, the XEIN article reported. According to a September 14 article on Tianshan Net, the XUAR needs about 900,000 to 1 million people each year to harvest cotton and has recruited nearly half of these workers from other provinces. XUAR students in junior high and above may do labor activities for no more than 14 days a year, according to the XUAR Opinion on work-study and older rules (cited, for example, in an Urumqi Evening News article posted September 12, 2005, on Xinhua); thus, the 800,000 students picking cotton in 2006 presumably contribute to part of the 500,000-person labor quota met from within the region. In 2005, however, some news media reported that students worked beyond this 14-day limit. A student quoted in the RFA article reported being made to work 45 days, and a teacher said students have worked up to 6 weeks. A parent cited in a Metropolitan Consumer News article posted September 15, 2005, on Tianshan Net said that his child's elementary school arranged for students to work 20 days.
The XUAR Opinion defines work-study to mean government-led activities organized by schools, and places labor activities into three categories: (1) "production activities" at education department or school labor practice bases; (2) crop-picking work including picking fruit, vegetables, hops, and cotton; and (3) litter-collecting activities. The Opinion forbids work that involves danger, "superstitions," or otherwise interferes with students' "normal development and health." The Opinion stipulates detailed requirements for reporting accidents and states that priority should be placed on using labor revenue to buy accident insurance for students and liability insurance for schools. It also says that labor revenues should mainly be used to "improve students' livelihood and conditions for operating schools." According to a student quoted in the 2005 RFA article, students could only receive a personal income from their labor if they exceeded the quota assigned to them, and students had to pay a fine if they were under quota.
Article 15 of the Chinese Labor Law forbids the employment of minors under 16, as do Article 28 of the Law on the Protection of Minors and Article 39 of the XUAR Implementing Measures for this national law. However, Article 13 of the Provisions on Prohibiting the Use of Child Labor provides that "education practice labor" and vocational skills training labor for children under 16 that are organized by schools and other educational and vocational institutes do not constitute the use of child labor when such activities do not adversely affect the safety and health of the students. Article 58 of the Education Law supports schools that establish work-study and other programs, provided that the programs do not negatively affect normal studies. A nationwide regulation on work-study programs for elementary and secondary school students outlines the general terms of such programs, which it says are meant to cultivate morals, contribute to production outputs, and generate resources for improving schools.
The International Labor Organization's (ILO) Convention 138, which China has ratified, sets the minimum age for child labor at 15, with limited exceptions. Although the Convention excludes work done as part of general, vocational, or technical education, such work must be an "integral part" of a course of study or training course. The XUAR work-study program's origins as a way to meet labor shortages, as well as the scope of the XUAR Opinion and other work-study regulations, call into question government efforts to cast the program as a form of legitimate education. The ILO's Convention 182, which China also has ratified, obligates Member States to eliminate the "worst forms of child labor," which include "forced or compulsory labor." As noted, students in the XUAR do work-study as a required course that affects their educational advancement. The national work-study regulation calls for "preventing students from not participating in labor [activities]," and according to the Metropolitan Consumer News article, a June 2005 circular from the XUAR education department prohibited schools from avoiding labor activities by paying out of the labor requirement or otherwise allowing students not to participate. Convention 182 also defines the worst forms of child labor to include "work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children." The prominent focus on liability insurance and accident reporting in the XUAR Opinion, combined with the new assessment that picking cotton is too strenuous for elementary school students, indicates government recognition that it is exposing students to dangerous work. Sources cited in the RFA report said that students harvesting cotton have suffered from pesticide exposure and accidents while operating farm equipment, and that some female students sleeping in dormitories on the agricultural sites have been sexually assaulted by adult laborers.
For more information on child labor in China, see section V(c), "Protection of Internationally Recognized Labor Rights," in the CECC 2006 Annual Report. See also CECC analyses on recent incidents involving the exploitation of child labor in Shaanxi and Henan provinces. For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see "Rights Violations in Xinjiang" in section III(a), "China's Minorities and Government Implementation of the Regional Ethnic Autonomy Law," in the CECC 2005 Annual Report.