Chinese migrants and Forced Labour in Europe

This working paper, by Chinese lawyer Gao Yun, is the result mainly of a desk review drawing on existing literature about Chinese migration to Europe, and of analysis of current Chinese law on trafficking. (Available in French, English and Chinese)

Trafficked or smuggled Chinese workers have been notoriously subject to abusive and dangerous conditions of work or transportation, in Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and other destination places. Public attention is now focusing more on the situation of Chinese migrant workers in Europe, and on what can be done to stem the abuses. In the United Kingdom for example, the tragic death of twenty Chinese cockle pickers in January 2004 brought to light the severe forms of exploitation to which irregular migrant workers can be subjected. It also pointed to the close relationship between the Chinese “snakeheads” who transport the migrant workers into foreign countries, the recruiting intermediaries in the destination country (so-called “gangmasters” in the case of the United Kingdom), and the employers who demand cheap and flexible labour. All of them have their share of involvement and responsibility in the recruitment, transportation and exploitative employment of Chinese irregular migrants.

This paper has some important conceptual observations, for example as to the complexities in drawing clear distinctions between the trafficking and smuggling of human beings. As the author observes, the seclusion of Chinese “ethnic business” can make it very difficult for law enforcement authorities to take effective action. It may also be difficult for trade unions or other civil society groups to intervene on behalf of these Chinese workers, given their vulnerable position and subjective perception of their circumstances. However, if these modern forms of forced labour are to be eliminated, the root causes including deficiencies in laws and labour market regulations must be addressed in both origin and destination countries. In addition, enhanced cooperation is needed among law enforcement authorities, labour market institutions and actors at both ends of the trafficking cycle.