ILO-Nottingham workshop raises urgent Chinese migrant labour issues

Human trafficking, the exploitation of Chinese migrants in the UK and the impact of economic recession on Chinese migrant workers were among issues hotly debated by more than 70 people at a conference organised by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and The University of Nottingham.

News | 04 November 2009

The workshop, attended by Roger Plant, Head of the Special action programme to combat forced labour at the ILO, Lu Xu, Counsellor and Consul General of the Chinese Embassy in the UK and Darryl Dixon of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, was held to bring together officials, researchers, employers, labour brokers and Chinese community leaders to discuss collaboration on the problems.

Participants at the workshop on “The Employment of Chinese Migrant Workers in UK: Issues and Solutions” agreed that action to resolve the problems faced by migrants, especially illegal or irregular Chinese migrants in the UK, could only be carried out through joint efforts, and that Chinese community organisations in particular needed to take steps together to help tackle the problems.

The two-day conference which took place on 22-23 October was part of a European Union-China collaborative project -- Capacity Building for Migration Management in China (CBMM) -- funded by the EU. The joint project of the ILO, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and EU member states aims to combat irregular migration and human trafficking and to better harness the benefits of regular migration from China to Europe.

Ms Lu of the Chinese Embassy said the total size of the ethnic Chinese community in the UK had presumably grown to 600,000, including those of Chinese and British nationality and some 100,000 students but excluding irregular migrants. This figure updated recent estimates from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which said that the Chinese community, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the UK, had grown from 227,000 in 2001 to 400,000 in 2007, a growth rate of 9.9 percent per year.

It is estimated that the number of undocumented or irregular Chinese migrants in the UK ranges between 150,000 and 200,000. Based upon an intensive survey in East Midlands, Dr. Bin Wu, senior research fellow at the Nottingham University’s China Policy Institute, told the workshop that the economic recession and strict migration management measures in the UK had reduced the flow of illegal immigration and human trafficking from China on the one hand, while on the other hand they had had a severe impact on the working conditions of many Chinese migrants, and especially irregular Chinese migrant workers in Britain.

The conference heard that human trafficking and the smuggling of Chinese migrants remained a serious problem nine years after the Dover tragedy in 2000 when 58 Chinese migrants died in the back of a lorry and four years after the Morecambe Bay disaster in which 21 Chinese cockle-pickers died. According to recent statistics from the UK Human Trafficking Centre, Chinese trafficking victims are the largest single nationality group and account for 17% of the known total of trafficking victims.

One of the difficulties in dealing with labour exploitation was that workers do not regularly “self-identify” themselves, Darryl Dixon of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) told the workshop. The GLA was set up after the Morecambe Bay tragedy to license and regulate those who supply labour or use workers to provide services in agriculture, forestry, horticulture, shellfish gathering and food processing and packaging.

He said the GLA had uncovered no evidence of organised exploitation of Chinese migrants in those sectors since Morecambe Bay. There had been isolated reports of Chinese collecting shellfish on the south coast of England, he said, but this did not appear to be on a large scale. Most work in the GLA sectors was being carried out these days by East European migrants, he said.

Another expert at Nottingham, Associate Professor Jackie Sheehan of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, told the conference many of the Chinese victims of trafficking were women forced into prostitution by the traffickers. Silva Hove of the Poppy Project, a charity which helps women trafficked into prostitution, said that the number of Chinese victims in the underground sex industry appeared to be increasing, based on the organisation’s data and information from its partner agencies.

Amid calls from the Chinese community to the government to legalise undocumented workers and allow migrants to fill serious shortages of workers in the Chinese ethnic economy, Mr Plant of the Geneva-based UN agency said there was a need for measures other than criminal law enforcement to deal with illegal workers and related problems.

Ms Lu added: “When we talk about the irregular immigrants, we do not mean they are different from us in nature. They are simply out of the system that we, the policymakers, and executives have set to manage the flow of human resources.”

Participants drew up plans at the workshop to promote further action within the Chinese community to promote greater awareness and disclosure of trafficking and labour exploitation, to develop stronger leadership, corporate social responsibility and lobbying capability in the Chinese catering industry, and to mobilise Chinese students and academic leaders to provide help to affected migrants.

Participants also recommended the need for further research to deepen understanding of what happens to repatriated victims of human trafficking upon their return to China. One group was also formed to assess whether a medical help-line could be set up to support irregular migrants, who were not generally allowed access to the British National Health Service.

Many participants commented that the event had offered a new momentum for development of the Chinese community, which is fragmented in the UK, with more than 1,000 separate organisations often representing different regions of China. Thirty years ago most ethnic Chinese organisations in the UK were made up of migrants from Hong Kong or of overseas Chinese. In recent years there has been a major influx of Chinese from all over mainland China, in particular from Fujian province in the southeast, and from the Northeastern provinces.

Business organisations, including the Recruitment and Employment Federation (REC) and the Ethical Trading Initiative, briefed the workshop on best practices in the employment of migrants. Anne Fairweather, Head of Public Policy at the REC, said that employers were subject to a fine of £5,000 per head if they employed illegal migrants.

Jabez Lam, of the Chinese Immigration Concern Committee, called on the government to regularise irregular migrants who were already in the UK, saying this was the only way to prevent their exploitation. This would also help address the problem of a severe labour shortage in the Chinese catering industry, he said.

For more information about the workshop, please contact Dr. Bin Wu (, Senior Research Fellow at the China Policy Institute, the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, The University of Nottingham.

The press release can also be found here.