Zenz published the first research on forced labour in Xinjiang’s cotton harvest to appear in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

Zenz said the research shows that coercive labour transfers for seasonal agricultural work such as cotton picking have continued through at least 2022 and remain part of Xinjiang’s official Five-Year Plan for 2021-25.

The study compares the recent situation in Xinjiang to Uzbekistan which implemented forced labour in cotton picking until 2021. 

Earlier this month, a new report from the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights urged further reforms to prevent human rights risks in the Uzbekistan cotton industry. It followed a report from the Cotton Campaign which found risks for coercion of pickers persist in the annual cotton harvest and that cotton farmers remain vulnerable to exploitative practices by the government and cotton companies. In particular, cotton workers face constraints on their rights to associate and collectively bargain, and there is a low capacity for independent monitoring of labour rights.

It came a year after the International Labour Organization declared Uzbekistan’s cotton industry forced labour free in 2021.

“Uzbekistan’s coercive labour practices were primarily driven by economic considerations, Xinjiang’s labour transfer program pursues some economic aims but is predominantly designed to achieve Beijing’s wider ethnopolitical goals in the region,” a synopsis of the study states.

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In an op-ed featured in Foreignpolicy.com, Zenz elaborates on the study saying despite partial mechanisation, state media reports from 2022 confirm premium-grade long staple cotton grown in southern Xinjiang still cannot be harvested by machines.

“The evidence further shows that increased mechanisation fuels forced labour, rather than reducing it. Mechanised harvesting requires converting smallholder plots into large, contiguous plantations. The ensuing large-scale collective land transfers force Uyghur farmers to surrender their land usage rights to large private or state-owned entities. These farmers are then subjected to state-arranged labour transfers —typically low-skilled manual work in nearby factories or sweatshops. Hence, even where cotton is harvested mechanically, its production often results in more forced labour, not less.”

“Beijing’s multiple systems of forced labour are still poorly understood, which can seriously impair the crafting of effective policy. Even seasoned experts and policymakers at times conflate labour transfers with camp-linked forced labour, or believe them to be concentrated in a few sectors, such as cotton or polysilicon. In reality, most forced labour in the region is unrelated to the camps. The bigger factor is coercive labour transfers, which are implemented as part of Xi’s campaign to eradicate absolute poverty. These affect almost all forms of low-skill work, regardless of sector.

“The forced transfer of Uyghurs into seasonal labour, such as cotton picking, operates separately from the reeducation camps — although the new research shows several prisons continue to operate cotton-ginning factories, and camp labour is used in textile and garment production. Instead, the state uses transfers of so-called surplus labourers to coerce Uyghurs into state-mandated work placements, including seasonal agricultural work. Those who fail to comply are liable to be labelled “extremists,” a charge that usually lands Uyghurs in reeducation camps.”