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China to ratify forced labour conventions in ‘major signal’ to EU

  • Two International Labour Organization conventions were among the stumbling blocks during marathon talks for the EU-China investment treaty

  • But the deal is still in limbo and an EU official says it ‘has no chance while there are sanctions’ on members of the European Parliament

By Amber Wang in Beijing and Finbarr Bermingham in Brussels

April 11, 2022

Workers tie down plastic sheeting during planting of a cotton field near Urumqi in Xinjiang during a government-organised trip for foreign media. China is accused of using forced labour in the region. Photo: AP

China is set to ratify two International Labour Organization conventions on forced labour next week during a meeting of its top legislature, a move seen as an important step to improve ties with Europe.

State news agency Xinhua said lawmakers would ratify the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 during a meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

The decision was made public at a meeting on Monday.

The pair of conventions were among the main stumbling blocks during marathon negotiations for the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which took almost eight years before an agreement in principle was reached at the end of 2020.

China had agreed to pursue ratification of the two ILO conventions as a compromise over forced labour, an issue that had stalled the investment deal talks with the EU, according to the agreement released in December 2020.

But the deal has been in limbo since Brussels and Beijing exchanged sanctions last year over accusations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

The EU in December renewed sanctions that were imposed on four Chinese officials and one entity in March last year.

China has also imposed sweeping sanctions on EU diplomats, lawmakers and researchers, leading the European Parliament to suspend any progress towards ratifying the investment treaty.

There has been little progress on the deal this year as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February worsened tensions between the two sides. At the first China-EU summit in almost two years – held on April 1 – neither side indicated any willingness or expectation to move the deal forward.

An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the investment agreement “has no chance while there are sanctions” on members of the European Parliament.

The ILO has identified eight fundamental conventions covering areas considered to be basic principles and rights at work – like forced labour, collective bargaining and the right to form trade unions – which Brussels demanded be included in the investment deal.

China, a member of the ILO, has already ratified four of the less controversial conventions – on equal remuneration, discrimination, the minimum age and child labour.

The two conventions on forced labour that China has not yet ratified relate to ending all forms of forced labour.

Over the past few years, China has faced mounting criticism – including from the European Union and the United States – over the alleged use of Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups in forced labour camps, mainly in the far western region of Xinjiang.

A guard tower and barbed wire fences are seen around an internment camp in Xinjiang in December 2018. Photo: AP

Beijing has denied the claims, saying it runs vocational training centres to combat religious extremism and terrorism.

Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin Unviersity in Beijing, said China’s plan to ratify the two conventions was an important step in improving China-EU relations.

Beijing should try to “win over Europe”, Wang said, also pointing to the “need for high-quality participation in the designation of global rules”.

He said the relationship needed to move forward from the exchange of sanctions and countersanctions, and both sides should show goodwill to improve ties.

Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the China-focused Merics think tank, said ratifying the conventions would “not be enough” to unlock the CAI, but that it would be a “major signal from China to the EU” after a tough bilateral summit earlier this month.

“It is an attempt to build the conditions for a more positive relationship with the EU during these tense times,” Ghiretti said, adding that it was a clever move on China’s side, but that “we should not expect much more than that”.

China and the EU are likely to remain deeply divided over sanctions. The European Parliament refuses to move forward with the investment treaty while sanctions on its members remain in place, meaning the deal is deadlocked.

“As long as Chinese countermeasures will be in place, there is no prospect for the ratification process of the CAI to move ahead,” the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in a speech to the parliament last week.

“That was explained clearly – first, during my conversation for the preparation of the summit with my counterpart, the Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi, and then during the [EU-China] summit.”

A study by the ILO published in February expressed “deep concern” about China’s labour practices in Xinjiang. It asked Beijing to repeal provisions “that impose de-radicalisation duties on enterprises and trade unions” in the western region.

After China’s top official for Europe Wang Lutong said that the “ball was in Brussels’ court” and that the EU sanctions would need to be removed first to unlock the CAI, a senior EU diplomat said this would be “impossible”, given that there was “no evidence of any improvement” in human rights conditions in Xinjiang.

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu


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