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Labor in Xinjiang: Forced or protected?

By Shang Haiming | | Updated: 2024-06-12 10:29
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Cotton harvesters are working in Sanhe town, Awat county, Aksu prefecture, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region of China. [Photo provided to]

Editor's Notes: The right to life and the right to economic development are first and foremost in China's human rights development philosophy. In the rights and interests of laborers, individual job preferences, remuneration, rest and leave, and occupational safety and sanitation are respected and guaranteed. This is one of the essential manifestations of human rights protection in China. This paper looks at the protection of labor rights in the development of Xinjiang from the perspective of the cotton production process and industrial development.

Mechanization of cotton production has become a normalized practice in southern Xinjiang

In recent years, to enhance production efficiency and reduce costs, cotton growers in the southern Xinjiang have been actively adopting new technologies and investing in new machinery and equipment. This has gradually led to the mechanization of the entire cotton production process, including precision planting, integrated water and fertilizer management, soil testing-based fertilization, and efficient cotton harvesting. these advancements, machine harvesting has emerged as a prominent trend.

In Aksu prefecture, the number of cotton harvesting machines reached 834 in 2020, accounting for 71.3 percent of the total cotton planting area. In Yuepuhu county, Kashi prefecture, the proportion of machine-harvested cotton also exceeded 50 percent in the same year. In the course of cotton cultivation, local cotton growers have not only accomplished mechanization but also successfully implemented sophisticated practices like unmanned autonomous seeding and drone-enabled intelligent identification of pests, diseases, and weed infestations.

Umit, a villager from Tianhai village in the Liu Yuan District Administrative Committee of Aksu prefecture, mentioned that he has contracted over 10,000 mu of land and cultivated 2,000 mu of cotton. The remaining land has been subleased to more than 20 households, ranging from 200 to 300 mu or even up to 1,000 mu. The cotton fields he cultivates are fully mechanized throughout the entire process, with four high-powered tractors available at his household.

Indeed, the Xinjiang region has consistently been a pioneer in mechanized cotton production nationwide, and in recent years, the level of mechanization has experienced a substantial surge. During the spring plowing and sowing season, agricultural operations for land preparation are carried out using versatile tractors, drag harrows, or plows. Additionally, precise and efficient seeding is accomplished through the utilization of various types of film-seeding machines. In summer, the promotion of integrated water and fertilizer management through drip irrigation under plastic mulch and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for plant protection enable precise irrigation, fertilization, defoliation, as well as monitoring and control of pests and diseases in cotton production. In autumn, high-efficiency cotton harvesting is carried out using six-row or multi-row intelligent cotton picking machines. Subsequently, mechanical operations for the collection of residual film are conducted using cotton film recycling machines. In the majority of regions in Xinjiang, the entire process of cotton production, including land preparation, seeding, management, harvesting, and sorting, has already been mechanized, paving the way for increased efficiency, automation, and intelligence.

The advancement of mechanization in cotton production in Xinjiang is an inherent demand of the local people

First and foremost, the emergence of cotton cooperatives and socialized services in cotton production has elevated the level of mechanization in equipment utilization. In today's Southern Xinjiang, the rapid advancement of high-standard farmland construction has provided possibilities for agricultural mechanization, while the establishment and improvement of land transfer system has ensured institutional support for large-scale production. Due to this foundation, the development model of "cooperatives + farmers" has gradually addressed the issue of fragmented land in the four prefectures of southern Xinjiang, thereby elevating the level of mechanized cotton production and the quality of cotton production.

Under this "cooperatives + farmers" model, small-scale landholders have the option to obtain dividends by investing their land contract management rights into the cooperative and earn income from labor by participating in cooperative production. Alternatively, they can directly transfer their land to the cooperative, seek employment outside, and reap dual benefits from both the land and off-farm work.

In Guleawati village, Guleawati township, Wensu county, Aksu prefecture, there are over 12,000 mu of cotton fields. Thereare two cotton planting cooperatives in the village: Jinfengyuan farmers' professional cooperative of Wensu county and innovative agricultural service farmers' professional cooperative of Wensu county. The latter has acquired over 4,000 mu of land through the means of land transfer while the former has got 1,000 mu of land similarly. After the land transfer, it becomes possible to carry out uniform land leveling. The cooperatives distribute dividends to small-scale landholders who have transferred their land each year. Therefore, for those farmers willing to seek employment outside, they can transfer their land to the cooperatives. If the small-scale landholders are unable to seek employment outside their land due to various reasons, they have the opportunity to work for the cooperative within their own fields. In doing so, they can receive a daily wage and also be eligible for dividends at the end of the year. The dividends are distributed based on cotton production, with 100 kilograms of cotton per mu of land.

Furthermore, with the continuous advancement in the mechanization of cotton production, a multitude of social service entities have emerged in the cotton production market of southern Xinjiang. These enterprises are dedicated to providing various cotton production services, including land plowing, seeding, intertillage, plant protection, and harvesting, for cotton farmers. This concerted effort not only elevates the level of agricultural specialization but also significantly reduces the production costs of cotton, thereby enhancing productivity and the quality of cotton.

Secondly, the substantial reduction in agricultural machinery purchasing costs has been made possible through the government's provision of subsidies for agricultural machinery purchases. Relevant data reveals that, in the first four months of 2021 alone, the government of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region disbursed agricultural machinery subsidies amounting to 1.03 billion yuan, with the aim of comprehensively promoting agricultural mechanization within the region. As indicated in the "List of Subsidy Amounts for Agricultural Machinery Purchases in the Autonomous Region for 2021-2023" published by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of the autonomous region, Xinjiang has further increased subsidies for cotton farmers purchasing cotton harvesting machines starting from 2021. The subsidy for self-propelled cotton harvesters with three rows and packing capabilities has been raised from 300,000 yuan per unit last year to 400,000 yuan per unit, while the subsidy for self-propelled cotton harvesters with five or more rows and packing capabilities has increased from 530,000 yuan per unit last year to 600,000 yuan per unit.

In Ahonglukumu township, Yuepuhu county, Kashi prefecture, a villager named Aizitiaili Sawuer owns multiple tractors for plowing, land preparation, seeding, and spraying. However, due to their high cost, he had not been able to purchase a cotton harvesting machine. In 2019, with the support of a government subsidy of 500,000 yuan, he was able to buy a five-row cotton harvester worth over 2 million yuan. He happily stated, "By providing cotton harvesting services to neighboring cotton growers, I can recover the investment in about four years." In September 2020, he also purchased an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) worth 50,000 yuan, mainly used for defoliation, spraying, and plant protection purposes.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, large-scale cotton producers are attempting to reduce labor costs in cotton production through mechanization. In the Aksu region, the cost of manual cotton picking is approximately 800 to 1000 yuan per mu, while the cost of mechanized cotton harvesting ranges from only 120 to 180 yuan per mu. Therefore, the cost of mechanized cotton harvesting is significantly lower than that of manual labor. As a result, an increasing number of cotton producers are opting for mechanical cotton picking.

In areas such as Aksu and Kashi, manual cotton picking is only found in the following cases: Firstly, it is applied for supplementary harvesting after mechanized cotton picking. Due to the large size of cotton harvesters, there may be some missed areas during turns in the field. Additionally, there is a need for supplementary picking to collect the remaining cotton at the bottom layer that was not harvested. Secondly, it is employed in long-staple cotton cultivation areas. Thirdly, it is used in scattered small cotton fields. Some small cotton fields that have not been properly leveled at the boundaries are difficult for cotton harvesters to access.

Umit, the villager from Tianhai village, said: "Before achieving mechanization, we used to require 700 to 800 cotton pickers each year. Now, only 60 to 70 people are needed for the daily management of cotton fields. "Previously, due to the need for a large number of cotton pickers, he had to promote job recruitment information everywhere. He would have to prepay deposits ranging from hundreds to thousands of yuan to secure the commitment of the workers, organize a fleet of vehicles to bring them in, and provide for their living expenses during their time as cotton pickers. With the gradual realization of full mechanization in cotton production, the demand for labor has significantly decreased. "Now, it is the cotton pickers who proactively call us to inquire about how many mu of land they can manage and harvest," Umit said.

The prospect of high income serves as the primary motivation for people to engage in cotton picking

Xinjiang is located in the northwestern region of China, an area that has been subject to the enduring impacts of historical and natural factors. As a result, its development has comparatively lagged behind, leading to a substantial presence of individuals living in poverty. Particularly, the four prefectures in southern Xinjiang, including Hotan, Kashi, Aksu, and Kizilsu Kirghiz autonomous prefecture, face harsh ecological conditions and have a weak economic foundation. These areas were designated as severely impoverished regions by the government due to their limited employment opportunities and significant lack of job capacity.

With long-term and multi-dimensional industry support from the Chinese government, Xinjiang cotton has become a globally recognized high-quality natural fiber material and holds a significant position in the global cotton industry chain. Moreover, the upstream and downstream industries supported by Xinjiang cotton sustain the livelihoods of millions of people in Xinjiang, making it a crucial pillar industry in the region.

Currently, compared to other occupations, the high income from cotton picking remains an extremely attractive position for the people of southern Xinjiang. During the cotton-picking process, the rights of cotton pickers, such as the freedom to choose employment, the right to receive fair wages, the right to rest and vacation, and the right to labor safety and health protection, are well safeguarded.

From September to November each year, cotton pickers from various parts of China, including Shandong, Henan, Gansu, and also from Xinjiang itself, participate in the cotton-picking work in Xinjiang.

According to the information available, manual cotton picking can be categorized into three main forms. Firstly, in some cases, the growers or managers of cotton fields provide accommodation and meals for the cotton pickers who work exclusively in cotton picking for an extended period. This situation is often observed when cotton pickers travel from different regions to pick cotton. Secondly, there are instances where the growers or managers do not provide accommodation and meals, but the cotton pickers still engage in full-time cotton picking during the season. This scenario is more common when the cotton pickers are from the same village or township as the cotton fields. Lastly, there are those who engage in part-time cotton picking. These individuals have their primary occupations and participate in cotton picking temporarily to supplement their income or cover household expenses.

Regardless of the aforementioned methods of cotton picking, the remuneration is typically based on a per kilogram basis. Generally, full-time cotton pickers from different regions can pick around 100 to 160 kilograms of cotton per day, with a few capable of picking up to 200 kilograms per day. Taking the example of the approximately 70-day boll-opening period for upland cotton, even if a cotton picker works for only 50 days, they can earn a minimum of 10,000 yuan from cotton picking, with some earning over 20,000 yuan. Full-time cotton pickers from the same village or township, despite the commuting time and household responsibilities, can pick more than 2,500 kilograms of cotton during one cotton picking season. Part-time cotton pickers often earn varying amounts, ranging from several thousand yuan or more after one cotton picking season.

Furthermore, in terms of wage settlement for cotton pickers, they have the freedom to choose various methods such as daily, weekly, or monthly payments. According to the "Statistical Bulletin of National Economy and Social Development of Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region 2019, "the average disposable income per capita was 23,103 yuan for the entire region, 34,664 yuan for urban residents and 13,122 yuan for rural residents. It is evident that the income of cotton pickers during the cotton-picking season (September to November) can reach or even exceed the average disposable income of rural residents. This is clearly one of the significant reasons why minority ethnic cotton pickers in Xinjiang choose to engage in cotton picking.

Additionally, a peculiar phenomenon has been observed in southern Xinjiang. Due to the high income from cotton picking, many industrial workers in the region's factories take leave during the cotton picking season to engage in cotton picking. In the months of September and October, workers are willing to forgo attendance bonuses in order to return to their hometown for cotton picking, and factories often adopt humane measures by allowing their employees' leave requests. From the workers' perspective, the income from cotton picking is substantial, often reaching two to three times their monthly factory wages. In the local factories, it has become a prevalent phenomenon for employees to opt for leave in order to engage in cotton picking during the months of September and October, and prohibiting such leaves would result in a significant loss of workforce. To reduce employee turnover, factories typically agree to these leave requests. However, as the mechanization level of cotton picking in Xinjiang continues to improve, the demand for manual labor in cotton picking has decreased, leading to a reduction in the number of workers taking leave for cotton picking.

The figure above depicts the annual attendance sheet collected by a textile company in Kashi Prefecture, Xinjiang. The"*"symbol indicates instances of absence for the respective employees during each month. It is evident that the majority of absences occur between September and December, when the workers have the freedom to take leave for cotton picking. Additionally, the figure reveals that the factory provides cooperation and support to these employees, ensuring their job positions are retained. After the cotton-picking season (in December), those workers can continue their work at the factory.

Based on the analysis above, we can clearly state that there is no evidence of any forced labor in any aspect of the cotton production process in Xinjiang. The Western accusations regarding cotton picking in Xinjiang severely lack factual evidence and are fundamentally illogical. Their imagination of cotton picking in Xinjiang remains absurdly stuck in historical scenes from 19th-century America, where enslaved individuals in the southern states picked "blood cotton" under the whip with tears in their eyes.

The author is Shang Haiming, associate professor at the Institute of Human Rights, Southwest University of Political Science and Law.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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