Will the Palermo Protocol help China’s victims of forced labour?

On 26 December last year, without much fanfare, China’s National People’s Congress ratified the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, one of two anti-trafficking protocols adopted by the UN in Palermo in 2000.

The protocol is primarily concerned with transnational trafficking and is broadly in line with Beijing’s high profile efforts to crack down on the trafficking of women into prostitution and the trafficking of children. However, it has a very broad definition of trafficking and could, if implemented fully, be of great help to the victims of forced labour inside China. The protocol defines trafficking in persons as:

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

The kinds of forced labour most commonly seen in China, abducting, coercing or tricking vulnerable youths and adults with mental disabilities into working in brick factories and mines, and keeping them held there by force for little or no pay, clearly falls within the above definition.

Moreover, the Palermo Protocol has specific provisions to protect and rehabilitate the victims of trafficking, a practice sorely lacking in China where victims are all too often left to fend for themselves after they have been “rescued.” There have even been cases recently of victims of forced labour being resold to brick kiln operators by their “rescuers.” Article 6.3 states:

Each State Party shall consider implementing measures to provide for the physical, psychological and social recovery of victims of trafficking in persons, including, in appropriate cases, in cooperation with non-governmental organizations, other relevant organizations and other elements of civil society, and, in particular, the provision of:
( a ) Appropriate housing;
( b ) Counselling and information, in particular as regards their legal rights, in a language that the victims of trafficking in persons can understand;
( c ) Medical, psychological and material assistance; and
( d ) Employment, educational and training opportunities.

Of course, this article has no legal compulsion and it is unlikely that China will adopt the above measures in full or even in part. However, ratifying the protocol should at the very least make Chinese government officials think about their responsibilities to care for the victims of forced labour. The option of working with NGOs and other social groups in particular should be encouraged.

The local police and civil affairs departments have thus far shown themselves to be incapable or simply unwilling to provide even basic care for the victims of trafficking, seeing them as a burden or a nuisance to be got rid of as quickly as possible. There are however many groups, such as the New Stars centre for street children in Baoji, Sha’anxi, for example, who could step into the breach and provide much needed care and assistance. The government should accept that it cannot control and manage everything, and allow and encourage civil society groups to help out where necessary.

Meanwhile, other provisions of the protocol call for the introduction into the domestic legal system of measures that would allow victims of trafficking to obtain monetary compensation for the damage suffered and be appraised and informed of any criminal proceedings against offenders. The victims of the 2007 Shanxi brickyard scandal have so far found it impossible to get proper compensation through the courts, and in one recent case in which a victim of forced labour was murdered by his co-workers; the police never even bothered to identify the victim.
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