US’s forced labour allegations global propaganda

Review & Mail Writers

Allegations by the United States that there is forced labour in Xinjiang, in China, are a desperate attempt to smear China and to slow down its economic development.

Interestingly, the US has not just confined its vitriol to Xinjiang, but has also gone further to undermine Chinese investments in other states, particularly in Zimbabwe, where it is spreading the same propaganda of forced labour and abuse of workers.

It is now sponsoring media houses and Civil Society Organisations in the country to spew anti-Chinese investments in a desperate attempt to claim a larger market share of investments to overtake China, which took advantage of government’s Look East Policy and the Second Republic’s Zimbabwe is Open for Business mantra.

There are a number of problems with US propaganda drivel.

First,  international law clearly defines forced labour through a series of conventions, protocols and other documents, which also determine standards of forced labour.

 According to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, the term forced labor means all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily. In other words, “involuntariness”, “menace of penalty” and “work or service” are three core elements of forced labor.

Article 244 of the Criminal Law in China specifies forced labour and in Xinjiang, workers of all ethnic groups choose jobs according to their own will, and enter into labor contracts with employers and get remuneration and rights and interests in accordance with laws and regulations such as the Labor Law and the Labor Contract Law, and on the basis of equality, voluntariness and consensus.

The governments at various levels in Xinjiang also provide necessary job skills training to workers who apply voluntarily. Workers of all ethnic groups are free to choose where they work and what they do. They are never menaced by penalty or restricted in their personal freedom. In short, there is no such thing as forced labor in Xinjiang.

In the same vein, China has made it a point that all Chinese companies should adhere to the labour laws of the countries in which they are investing in.

And to demonstrate its commitment to fair labour practices, China has ratified 28 international labor conventions, with the latest being the Forced Labor Convention, 1930 and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 which were both ratified in April 2022.

China faithfully fulfills its obligations under international conventions, and truly protects the rights of workers and prohibits forced labor through legislation and policy formulation and implementation. Forced labor is explicitly prohibited by Chinese law.

On the contrary, the United States, according to ILO statistics, has ratified one of the lowest numbers in terms of ratification of ILO Conventions, having ratified only 14 and is yet to ratify the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, yet it wants to lecture China on forced labour.

Out of the 10 Core Conventions of the ILO, the United States has only ratified two, which speaks volumes about the double standards of the country which claims to be the champion of human rights, including workers’ rights;  and democracy.

Since the 1930s, the core standards of the International Labour Organization (ILO) on forced labor include: Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29, ratified by 179 member states by the end of 2021), the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105, ratified by 176 member states by the end of 2021) and the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (ratified by 59 member states by the end of 2021).

However, it should be known that the foundation of the United States is based on forced labour, dating back to the years of slavery, where slave trade was an original sin of the United States. When the United States was founded, it was the blood and tears of millions of black slaves sold to the country that helped create immense wealth and complete the primitive accumulation of capital.

For a country with a history of only 246 years, slavery had been legal in the United States for almost one-third of its history. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, in the history of slave trade, there were at least 36,000 “slaving expeditions” between 1514 and 1866. And according to German data firm Statista, there were about 700,000 black slaves in the United States in 1790, while by 1860 the number had exceeded 3.95 million, and fewer than 490,000 African Americans were free in the whole nation.

Black slaves, without adequate food or clothing, were forced to work under harsh conditions at the bottom of society. They were cruelly exploited and many were even tortured to death. Lots of black slaves were forced into the cotton industry.

As American writer Edward Baptist wrote in his book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, the whip drove the slaves to devote all of their physical strength and most of their energy to cotton picking, making the speed faster and faster. Under the brute force of slave owners, cotton production in the United States by 1860 reached 130 times that of 1800. Behind the rapid increase in cotton production are the blood and tears of black slaves.

 Data shows that the value of labor extracted from black slaves by U.S. slave owners is as high as US$14 trillion at current prices. According to the website of James Madison’s Montpelier, the home to the fourth President of the United States James Madison, the slavery economy was once the main engine driving the American economy. Slavery was essential to the U.S. economy from tobacco farming in Virginia to shipbuilding in Rhode Island. In 1850, slaves produced 80 percent of America’s exports. Sven Beckert, a historian from Harvard University, said that the United States and the West prospered through slavery, not democracy.

The Conversation, a nonprofit news organization, noted when tracing the history of slavery in the United States that “criminal slaves” and “real estate slaves” have coexisted since the late 18th century. In Virginia, the state with the most African Americans in jail, prisoners were declared “dead spirits” and “state slaves”. It was not until the early 20th century that states stopped leasing criminals to farmers and industrial and commercial operators as cheap labor for railroads, highways and coal mines. In Georgia, a 1907 cessation of renting out criminals led to an economic shock in industries ranging from brick making to mining, and many companies went out of business as a result.

Archives show that by the end of the 1860s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers had taken part in the construction of railways in the U.S. Poor Chinese peasants boarded ships known as “floating hells”, where they were packed like sardines, and drifted on the sea for about two months before arriving in California and working as coolies. On these journeys, up to 64.21 percent of the Chinese died due to inhuman treatment, typhoons or infectious diseases. Those who survived became the target of racial discrimination and whipping from white supervisors. It took them only seven years to build a railway originally planned as a 14-year project. As some historians put it, the bones of Chinese laborers could be found under every sleeper of the railway.

And yet with such a horrible track record of forced labor and no signs of repentance, the United States still has the nerve to point fingers at China, yet it has deliberately evaded its responsibility for labor protection, resulting in “slave labor” among prisoners in private prisons, rampant use of child labor, and appalling forced labor in the agriculture sector, effectively making America a country of “modern slavery”.

According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, 2 million inmates are held in 102 federal prisons, 1,566 state prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons and other facilities in the United States. With less than five percent of global population, the United States holds a quarter of the world’s detainees, making it the country with the largest imprisoned population and highest imprisonment rate.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while nominally protecting citizens from forced labor, excludes criminals. The U.S. prison system abuses the 13th Amendment to legalize forced labor among prisoners. In prisons at the federal and sub-national levels, there are a large number of incarcerated workers engaged in the daily maintenance of the prison system, including repairs, cooking, facility cleaning and laundry. Most of them are black or other people of color.

Some prisoners are leased to public projects or employed by businesses in construction, road maintenance, forestry and funeral services, jobs that are considered dirty, heavy-duty or high-risk. According to Reuters, Suniva, one of the largest U.S. solar panel makers, uses prison labor to keep costs down. The head of the company has admitted to working with the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) in the relocation of production lines from Asia back to the United States for a lucrative federal contract.

And according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), at least 30 U.S. states include prisoners as a labor source for disasters and other emergency operations, and at least 14 hire prisoners for forest firefighting. Most incarcerated workers say they have never received any formal job training and often have to conduct dangerous operations against safety protocols and without protective equipment. Casualties, which are not uncommon, often go unrecorded by the prisons. The Atlantic commented in 2015 that “convict leasing was cheaper than slavery, since farm owners and companies did not have to worry about the health of their workers.”

The United States has effectively formed a sprawling “prison-industrial complex”. Private prisons operating under contracts with the government have become a major source of forced labor in the United States. Incarcerated workers in private prisons are entirely at the mercy of their employers and have no right to refuse to work. As high as 76 percent of the inmates interviewed reported various punishments when they were unable or unwilling to work, including solitary confinement, reduction of family visits, or denial of bail or commutation. Besides, prisoners have no choice in their work assignments which are entirely based on the arbitrary, discriminatory or even punitive decisions by prison management personnel. Laura Appleman, a professor at the College of Law of Willamette University, points out in her report Bloody Lucre: Carceral Labor and Prison Profit that private prison is a “pernicious form of servitude”, and that prisoners are “trapped in the service of endlessly increasing profit, the literal revenues of physical toil, suffering, and exploitation.”

For years, private prisons in the United States have colluded with greedy politicians to force prisoners to work, thus turning private prisons into “concentration camps” of slavery where they could make fortunes by exploiting the poor. Due to lack of oversight, prisoners of forced labor work long hours in harsh conditions while getting paid little, or in some cases, nothing at all. In early 2022, the ACLU filed a lawsuit, exposing the pervasive power-for-money dealings in the operation of detention facilities in American private prisons, which exacerbate excessive imprisonment and forced labor, and demanding that the U.S. Marshals Service provide information about operators’ contracts and make it public.

There are lots more examples of how the United States government, in this age and era, still uses forced labour to develop its economy yet it wants to be the policeman of the world. What hypocrisy!

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