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International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition Invisible prisoners: The trafficking and exploitation of Chinese immigrants in France

According to an ILO study, some 50,000 illegal Chinese immigrants living in France are easy prey to exploitation through forced labour. Resulting from major economic and social change in China, the movement has been growing for the past ten years, with more than 6,000 Chinese immigrants arriving each year in Paris and the surrounding region. Victims of trafficking, at the end of their dangerous journey through transit countries where they run the risk of racketeering, violence and sometimes death, the migrants have little choice but to integrate themselves into a parallel ethnic economy where they can remain trapped for years, mainly in the clothing and catering sectors. The report describes this inhuman and invisible life, in the words of the Chinese migrants themselves, following a survey conducted in close collaboration with the French authorities.

Article | 18 August 2005

PARIS - Mr. Guo, from the province of Zhejiang in China, arrived in France illegally, with the help of a trafficker. In a study just published by the ILO on the trafficking and exploitation of Chinese immigrants in France, he recounts that he initially found work in a clothing workshop. Having completed an unpaid apprenticeship to learn to sew, he could no longer bear to work from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. shut in the workshop he shared with two fellow apprentices. With his health deteriorating, he decided to find another employer.

He now works in a restaurant as a dishwasher, but his situation is no better. "I work 12 hours a day, six days a week, and I earn 300 euros a month. I eat and sleep in the restaurant, it is like a death sentence for me. My hands are completely destroyed and I still have a 9,000 euro debt to repay." Having voluntarily left China to find a better life, Mr. Guo, like the thousands of other illegal Chinese immigrants in France, finds himself caught in the trap of forced labour. Like Mr. Guo, 75 per cent of Chinese migrants who have illegally entered France owe debts ranging from 12,000 to 20,000 euros to their traffickers.

"The most common scenario is for the person's identification documents to be confiscated by the smuggler, who gives them to the employer, who then pays the worker's wage to the trafficker to reimburse the debt" explains Gao Yun, a lawyer at the ILO and co-author of the report. "The trap closes around them: it will take them from two to ten years to reimburse their debt. From that moment on, the migrants enter an underground ethnic economic network which is difficult to define. They make themselves invisible through fear of arrest."

Working 15 to 18 hours both day and night, being paid 300 to 500 euros, 40 per cent of which is confiscated by employers, who continue to use "employment blackmail" even when they have been reimbursed: these are familiar situations in the clothing workshops and restaurants of the Chinese quarter in Paris. The harshness of the work is compounded by isolation. The migrants have little recourse to the assistance provided by the destination society, the study notes. Labour inspectors find that, unlike other nationalities, they hardly ever receive complaints from the Chinese regarding working conditions. In addition to the language barrier, there is also the fear of questioning and being forced to return to China.

This is the case for Mr. Li. In a room measuring 10m2 on the outskirts of Paris, with planks of wood attached to the wall in the guise of beds, he and his wife work on their sewing machines throughout the night. Mr. Li stocks a few bottles of wine to give his neighbours to stop them telling the police about the noise caused by the machines going all night long. The last link in the subcontracting chain, Mr. Li collects garments that have already been cut out and sews them together at his home, non-stop. Their daughter has not been enrolled at school because Mr. and Mrs. Li believe that their papers must be in order for them to do so. She is left with a lady during the day to stop her from constantly breathing in fabric dust.

Like employers in the clothing sector, restaurant owners have adapted to the increasing number of inspections, and favour home work. "Home-made" Chinese ravioli workshops allow restaurant owners to free themselves from their social and fiscal obligations. General information in the ILO study states that such workshops also prepare fish kebabs and sushi intended for Japanese restaurants in Paris, 90 per cent of which are run by the Chinese.

An inspector explains "The working conditions are terrible, these are small apartments where large quantities of food are prepared each day, in appalling conditions of hygiene and storage. It is exploitation every step of the way, as each individual piece of ravioli is bought at 50 euro centimes by the restaurant owner, who then sells it at his restaurant for at least 3 euros."

Domestic service also escapes labour inspection. Women from northern China, recruited for such work, live in extreme conditions. They are not properly fed, their accommodation is disgraceful and they are on call 24 hours a day for a wage equivalent to half the minimum wage. Some end up turning to prostitution.

How to end these practices

In France, while the Penal Code does not refer to forced labour as such, two provisions can be applied to it: these are principally the articles that crack down on inexistent or inadequate remuneration for the work of a vulnerable or dependent person, and that punish the subjecting of a vulnerable or dependent person to working or living conditions incompatible with human dignity (Articles 225-13 and 225-14). Between 1994 and 2003 there were, however, only 114 convictions. As to the slave trade, in accordance with the Palermo Protocol the subject was incorporated into the French Penal Code (Article 225-4-1) in March 2003. As yet no convictions have been handed down in France.

The study contains a number of recommendations, first and foremost to promote better cross border partnership and better cooperation among those involved in the labour market and between labour inspectors and the services responsible for making sure laws are respected.

"Dialogue on these subjects between the Chinese business community in France, French organizations and workers' organizations from both countries is very important", stresses Roger Plant, who is in charge of the ILO Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour. "It is our hope" he concludes "that the report and the observations it contains will pave the way to greater cooperation, to ensure that such migration is a source of wealth for the destination countries and the migrants themselves, rather than leading to unacceptable forms of exploitation such as forced labour. And I am sure that is possible."

In the framework of the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, similar research has begun in a number of origin, transit and destination countries for migrants, notably in Germany, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Moldova, the United Kingdom and Japan.

Note 1 - Gao Yun and Véronique Poisson: Le trafic et l'exploitation des immigrants chinois en France, Programme d'action spécial pour combattre le travail forcé (The trafficking and exploitation of Chinese immigrants in France, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour), Geneva, ILO, 2005.