Underage Students Continue To Pick Cotton in Xinjiang Work-Study Program

December 8, 2010

Authorities in the far western region of Xinjiang have continued to enforce "work-study" programs that require students to pick cotton and engage in other forms of labor. The programs allow schools to take students out of class for periods of one to two weeks a year to engage in fulltime labor, though in some reported cases, students have worked for longer periods. While authorities portray the work-study programs as a means of instilling a work ethic in students, they also have described the programs as a way to meet harvesting quotas and raise revenue for schools. In fall 2009 and 2010, officials stressed the importance of using students to meet labor shortages in the cotton industry, following demonstrations and rioting in the region in July 2009. Although Xinjiang authorities announced in 2008 that students in junior high and lower grades would no longer pick cotton in the work-study programs, reports from 2009 and 2010 indicate that some localities continued to use these younger students to meet the shortage of cottonpickers. Both the work to pick cotton and other forms of work-study exceed permissible boundaries for vocational education and work-study programs as defined in both Chinese and international law.

Authorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) continued to implement work-study programs in 2009 and 2010 that require students to pick cotton and engage in other forms of labor, according to various media and government reports from the region. (Internet access in the region was blocked in late 2009, and during that time, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China did not find any articles about work-study programs in the region that year.) As noted in past CECC analyses (1, 2, 3), the work-study programs have been used since the mid-1990s as a stated means of generating income for local schools and meeting local harvesting quotas. The work-study programs, and work involving cottonpicking in particular, have drawn complaints from students and parents over the workload and health and safety risks. In 2006, XUAR authorities implemented an opinion limiting work-study to children in the third grade of elementary school and higher, as well as limiting work-study to 7 days for elementary school students and 14 days for students in higher grades. In 2008, the XUAR Department of Education issued a circular stating that students enrolled in the state's compulsory nine years of elementary and junior high school would no longer take part in work-study activities to pick cotton. In 2009 and 2010, however, some localities reported that they continued to use elementary and junior high school students to pick cotton. Localities also continued to use high school students, stressing the importance of the student labor in fulfilling a shortage of workers in the cotton industry.

Authorities Disregard Circular, Younger Children Pick Cotton

At least two localities in 2009 and 2010 reported using underage students to pick cotton, though details of the reports suggest that the actual scope of student labor may have been wider. A message submitted to the Xinhe (Toqsu) county government, Aqsu district, Web site on September 18, 2010, reported that at a Xinhe education bureau meeting for elementary and secondary school principals in September 2010, authorities made plans for students to take part in 14 days of work-study to pick cotton in 2010, despite the 2008 circular ending the use of younger students in cottonpicking work-study activities. The message's author complained about the workload and health risks and asked the Xinhe government to pay heed to the issue. In response, the government reported that it stopped having students pick cotton in work-study programs following issue of the 2008 circular. Due to the influence of the Urumqi "July 5 Incident" (demonstrations and riots that took place in July 2009), however, the region faced a shortage of cotton workers during harvest season in 2009, and in accordance with instructions from then-XUAR Communist Party Secretary Wang Lequan, the county arranged for elementary and secondary school students to pick cotton, according to the response. The government response also stated that the Xinhe education bureau asked the Xinhe government in 2010 to arrange for students to pick cotton, due to high cotton yields and the school system's debts related to implementing compulsory education. At the present time, however, the education bureau had not yet implemented work-study activities, according to the response.

In addition, the Party committee of a division regiment of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) brought in fifth- through eighth-grade students from one secondary school to pick cotton in 2010, according to an October 4, 2010, report from the Xinjiang Agricultural Information Portal (XAIP) Web site. The grade range appears to include students in nine years of compulsory education who would be excluded from cottonpicking activities under the XUAR's 2008 circular. The article did not describe the students' labor specifically as "work-study" and focused primarily on safety "education" and precautions taken to avoid accidents, suggesting official recognition, as in the past, that the work exposes students to risk of injury.

Students Fulfill Labor Shortages, High School Students Continue To Pick Cotton

Some articles from the past year cited the need for student workers because of a shortage of labor in the region. See, for example, a September 28, 2010, article on the XPCC 5th Division Web site, an October 2 XAIP article, and the October 4 XAIP article cited above. (For related articles on this year's cotton yield in the XUAR and its role in easing rising cotton demand in China, see, e.g., a November 6, 2010, Xinjiang Daily article and November 10, 2010, China Daily article.) Some localities reported on meeting the shortage of laborers with high school students, whose participation in cottonpicking work-study activities was left intact under the 2008 circular. In Wusu (Shixo) city, Tacheng (Tarbaghatay) district—where a parent complained in 2008 that junior high school students were made to pick cotton and that students worked beyond the permitted time period of 14 days—a total of 4,888 students in the area took part in 15 days of work to pick cotton in 2010, according to the October 2 XAIP article. 488 of these students were identified as third-year senior high school students. The article does not specify the grade levels of the remaining students. A person leading the group of 488 senior high school students noted they had extensive experience in picking cotton and many could likely pick an average of 60 kilograms of cotton a day, according to the report. The story did not specifically describe the students' labor as "work-study." The dates of the work indicate it took place during the school semester.

The attention to using work-study programs to generate income for schools—as noted in the Xinhe government's reply discussed above—suggests that students are not always compensated for their labor. As reported in a previous CECC analysis, in 2006, students in one locality reportedly only could 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. A September 25, 2010, Tianshan Net article reported that a school in Xinyuan (Kunes) county, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, failed to return to high school students the income that they earned during work-study activities in 2009.

Xinjiang Programs Exceed Permitted Parameters for Work-Study

The continued use of younger children in work-study programs, including cottonpicking activities, as well as the focus on older students' participation in the activities in order to meet labor shortages, underscores how the programs exceed permitted parameters for "work-study" programs under both Chinese and international law. The International Labor Organization's 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. Article 15 of China's Labor Law forbids the employment of minors under 16. Within this legal framework prohibiting child labor, Article 13 of the Provisions on Prohibiting the Use of Child Labor and Article 58 of the Education Law allow for "education practice labor" and work-study programs for children under the age of 16, but such programs must not harm children's health or safety or adversely affect their normal studies. See previous CECC analyses (1, 2) for additional information.

For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section IV—Xinjiang in the CECC 2010 Annual Report.