Work-Study Programs Using Child Labor Continue in Xinjiang

January 11, 2008

Authorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) continued this year to force students in the region to pick cotton and do other physical labor, despite China's obligation to bar such work as a state party to international conventions addressing child labor and despite objections from both students and parents. As previously noted by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), the XUAR government, acting under central government authority bolstered by local legal directives, promotes the use of student labor, including labor by young children, via work-study programs to harvest crops and do other work. The XUAR government reportedly developed work-study programs to address labor shortages during the autumn harvest. Students do not receive pay for their work, and their performance in the work-study programs influences their promotion to higher grades.

This year the use of student labor has continued, though reportedly to a lesser extent, according to a September 22 article published by the Metropolitan Consumers Morning News (MCMN) (via Tianshan net). Over 1 million students in the region pick cotton through work-study programs each year, according to the report. At the same time, the article reported that work-study programs requiring students in junior high school and above to pick cotton have decreased in recent years, and some schools have eliminated work-study programs that require physical labor. Those students in work-study programs to pick cotton at schools cited in the MCMN article must meet a daily quota of 30 to 35 kilograms of cotton and are penalized if they fall short of this amount. At some schools, students permitted to forgo picking cotton due to illness must perform other work on campus, according to the article.

Despite the report that students' participation in school-sanctioned physical labor has diminished, the XUAR government maintains policies and legal directives that allow the use of student labor from children as young as the third grade of elementary school, even as it recognizes that the labor exposes students to physical harm. In May 2006, the XUAR government issued an Opinion on Strengthening the Management of Secondary and Elementary School Students' Work-Study Labor Activities (Opinion). The Opinion bars students in second grade and below from participating in work-study. The Opinion limits elementary students in third grade and above to 7 days of work-study per year and junior high schoolers and high school students to 14 days. Despite these time restrictions, which existed before the Opinion was issued, reports from Chinese and overseas media have indicated that students have worked beyond this limit and in long daily shifts. The Opinion also 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. For more information, see a previous CECC analysis on work-study programs.

The XUAR government's extensive use of work-study programs reflects tight central government control over the region and its resources, but government-supported work-study programs exist elsewhere in China. See a December 3 report from Human Rights Watch for more information on work-study programs throughout China. Although China's Labor Law forbids the employment of minors under 16, other central government measures provide legal support for work-study programs. Consult the previous CECC analysis on work-study programs for more information. A Ministry of Education circular issued in 2006 addresses broad concerns about work-study programs, including unsafe working conditions and penalties for students who don't meet quotas, but upholds schools' use of such programs for both elementary and secondary school students. Such programs contravene China's obligations as a state party to International Labor Organization Conventions 138 and 182, which address child labor, and to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. For additional information, see Section II, Worker Rights, in the 2007 CECC Annual Report (via the Government Printing Office Web site). For more information on conditions in the XUAR, see Section II--Ethnic Minority Rights, subsection on Rights Abuses in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.