Trapped: the Belt and Road Initiative and its Chinese Workers

(On the banner, the workers wrote “I want to go home.”)

Trapped_ The Belt and Road Initiative’s Chinese Workers

Executive Summary

The Belt Road Initiative (BRI), China’s ambitious transnational development program, is set to redefine globalization with “Chinese characteristics.”[1] Since its inception, thousands of transportation, energy, information technology, and mining projects have been initiated  around the globe. According to the American Enterprise Institute’s estimate, the total value of BRI has reached $838.04 billion.[2] The initiative has also driven growth at home by deepening connectivity.[3] It has played a crucial part in bridging the global investment gap in infrastructure,[4] has contributed to China’s rising dominance in the global rare earth supply,[5] and has further strengthened the country’s position in global supply chains. Yet, despite the BRI’s potential, observers have called attention to instances of corruption, human rights violations, and environmental hazards related to the initiative .[6] Critics have argued that this “new Silk Road” is designed to secure China’s place as the center of a new world economic order.[7] Some have also expressed concern that Beijing’s export of its surveillance technology, management strategies, and ideology might undermine democracy.[8]

There is another, lesser-known aspect of the BRI initiative that deserves scrutiny: labor conditions for its Chinese workers. According to data from China’s Ministry of Commerce, in 2021, there were 592,000 Chinese workers[9] overseas.[10] This number is lower than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, the official statistics exclude Chinese workers who do not possess a valid work visa. However, in our survey of 333 Chinese workers in Indonesia, only 27.6 percent held valid work visas to work in that country. Thus, millions of Chinese are potentially employed by BRI projects. These people, hired via convoluted chains of subcontracting, isolated in their host societies with or without a legal status, and unfamiliar with local legal resources, experience exploitative and dangerous working conditions. In fact, many endure circumstances that not only match the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) definition of forced labor,[11] but also sometimes approach human trafficking and modern-day slavery.

The cause of these abuses: insufficient oversight by a range of actors, including Chinese authorities, China’s BRI partner states, and global civil society. But of these actors, China bears special responsibility. There is a qualitative difference between forced labor and human trafficking in BRI projects as compared to similar abuses in other well-known cases, as the BRI is, fundamentally, a state-backed initiative financed mainly by Chinese capital.

This report is dedicated to giving these silenced workers a voice.

China Labor Watch (CLW) has documented the following specific troubling issues:

  • Misleading or outright deceptive job ads, pre-work deposits, and harsh appraisal systems, all of which place workers in a fundamentally disadvantaged position;
  • Restriction of personal freedom through the arbitrary use of fines, the withholding of identification documents, the accumulation of wage arrears, and, again, the exaction of pre-work deposits;
  • Threats and use of physical violence to prevent workers from running away, resisting management, or contacting the media or local authorities;
  • Either enforced signing of contracts without workers’ expressed understanding of their terms, or, in some cases, the absence of any contract whatsoever;
  • Workers’ unfamiliarity with their host societies and ignorance of the avenues of legal recourse that might be available to them;
  • Strict COVID-19 policies that limit workers’ ability to pursue job options in China
  • Complicity of various parties, including the local police, hired Chinese ex-military guards, and, occasionally, Chinese embassies and consulates in surveilling and controlling workers.

CLW believes that the following five factors exacerbate these problems: (1) The companies involved in the BRI have little accountability either at home or abroad; (2) The current lack of reach or lax execution of China labor law over international labor rights disputes involving Chinese migrant labor abroad; (3) The general lack of involvement of international organizations in monitoring the BRI for abuses; (4) The political and economic stakes for China and its BRI partner countries which evidently outweigh any considerations of workers’ rights in the minds of authorities; and (5) The relative lack of interest in investigating these issues on the part of global civil society.



To improve the conditions of Chinese workers in BRI affiliated projects, CLW recommends that the following stakeholders take the following actions:



There are several steps China should take. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) must protect the rights of Chinese workers overseas by offering free legal advice and assistance to workers seeking redress from the workers’ foreign employers and/or the domestic employment agency that arranged their placement overseas. China should sign and ratify the ILO C97 Migration for Employment Convention,[12] ILO C143 Migrant Workers Convention,[13] and the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.[14] Authorities ought to enforce the country’s rule of law, and impose stricter and more encompassing regulations on overseas projects and impose harsher penalties on unqualified agencies that organize cross-border labor dispatch. In August 2022, in response to mounting pressure from the global society over China’s human rights violations against the Uyghur ethnic minority, China ratified both the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105).[15] The government should fully incorporate the language of these anti-forced labor treaties into its domestic labor laws and legislations and implement systematic measures to hold the agencies accountable for acts such as deceptive recruiting, confiscation of passports, and illegal contracting practices. Moreover, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce and its municipalities should fully implement relevant legislations and perform their official duties to regulate overseas entities’ behavior. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its municipalities should also implement actions to protect overseas Chinese citizens’ rights. The establishment of special procedures, committees, or new government bodies to deal specifically with overseas labor disputes is highly recommended in order to protect overseas workers, a group that’s especially vulnerable due to the nature of overseas work, and their rights. China ought to implement special departure screening procedures for Chinese workers at borders to identify possible victims of labor trafficking. Moreover, authorities should implement a third-party monitoring mechanism to examine, control, and monitor labor rights abuse.

BRI Host Countries

Host countries, too, have a responsibility to address the situation. They should sign and ratify the ILO C97 Migration for Employment Convention, ILO C143 Migrant Workers Convention, and the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. Local governments ought to create accessible channels through which Chinese workers can file complaints (including providing Chinese-language hotlines), and authorities should collaborate with civil society to offer assistance to the workers. Officials should impose stricter requirements for employers who wish to hire foreign workers. Governments ought to regularly inspect working and living conditions at BRI project worksites, and inspect companies’ hiring qualifications. In particular, authorities need to develop and enhance mechanisms to identify employers and worksites that violate prohibitions on forced labor and labor trafficking. Governments must directly hold companies accountable for breaching labor and immigration regulations, and they must eliminate penalties on victims of human trafficking for breaching immigration laws. Authorities should impose stricter screening procedures for visitor- or business-visa applicants and carefully inspect the qualifications of work-visa applicants and sponsors. And to complement stricter departure screening by China, they should implement stricter arrival screening procedures at borders to identify trafficking victims.

United States

This report is being published in the United States, so suggestions are made to U.S. authorities in particular. Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 U.S.C. §1307) prohibits products produced wholly or in part by forced labor. This rule should be enforced. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), signed into law in December 2021 and implemented in June, 2022, targets goods produced in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (or East Turkestan) following reports of widespread state-sanctioned forced labor, wrongful convictions, mass detainment, and other human rights allegations. The U.S. should fully implement and use this legal framework to pause or prohibit importation of goods or the use of services provided by companies or individuals suspected of using or organizing forced labor or human trafficking as a part of the BRI, as it does with entities suspected of breaching these standards in other contexts. For companies, persons, or entities that enable, participate, or extract benefits from forced labor and human trafficking of laborers, the U.S. should implement policies to hold them criminally or otherwise accountable. U.S. Government agencies ought to actively promote human rights and fair labor practices to the governments and civil societies of China and BRI-hosting countries. The U.S. should offer technical support to BRI countries to help them vet prospective projects for economic and environmental sustainability. It should also target the BRI with a robust anti-corruption campaign. Finally, America must work with allies to create alternatives to the BRI that address global inequalities, while promoting more ethical standards as well as multilateralism.

Other Countries

Foreign policy is a key vehicle for raising the cost of forced labor and human trafficking practices involving the BRI, and it is most effective when multiple governments cooperate. For example, the United States has laws and regulations that specifically target beneficiaries of forced labor, and when these regulations are implemented, the funds and persons corresponding to forced labor overseas may be transferred to other Western countries. Therefore, the EU should also introduce and implement legislations that target forced labor, and hold culprits of forced labor criminally or economically responsible through legal proceedings. As a recent example, on September 14, 2022, the European Commission drafted a proposal to prohibit the sale of products made with forced labor from the EU market.[16] If this proposed ban could be implemented, it would be a crucial step toward addressing labor rights abuses globally, including those related to the BRI. Other sanctions such as visa bans and asset freezes against key individuals who knowingly initiate, fund, or participate in the organization and management of forced labor practices is another viable path. Moreover, all countries should seek actions to monitor, track, and prevent goods produced by forced labor from entering their domestic markets. 

The UN and Other International Organizations

The United Nations must condemn, pause or prohibit the importation of goods or the use of services provided by companies or individuals suspected of using or organizing forced labor, human trafficking, or modern slavery. UN bodies and other international organizations ought to investigate BRI projects for labor rights abuses and create Chinese-language hotlines, resources, and support services (e.g. legal aid) for workers. There should be better monitoring and implementation of the ILO and UN treaties related to workers’ rights, including: ILO C97 Migration for Employment Convention, ILO C143 Migrant Workers Convention, the United Nations International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, and the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) newly ratified by China.[17] The United Nations should embark on periodic investigations to assess labor conditions in transnational projects backed by Chinese investments. UN officials ought to offer technical support to BRI countries to help them vet prospective projects for economic and environmental sustainability. Relevant agencies should embark on a robust anti-corruption campaign. There should be coordination between international organizations and other organizations to condemn and/or impose sanctions on entities that use or organize forced labor, human trafficking and modern slavery as a part of the BRI.

Global Civil Society

Global civil society groups should create channels to provide legal and material assistance to victims of forced labor and labor trafficking. Groups also need to target workers through education campaigns on fair labor practices and human rights. They ought to provide training for workers on the collection of appropriate evidence of rights violations that can be used for legal proceedings. Finally, transnational connections and cooperation should deepen in order to pressure all BRI projects to increase transparency and accountability, and to sanction persons, companies, and organizations involved in trafficking and forced labor globally.


[1] Jason Zukus, 2017. “Globalization with Chinese Characteristics: A New International Standard?” The Diplomat.

[2] The American Enterprise Institute, “China Global Investment Tracker.”

[3] OECD Business And Finance Outlook, 2018. “China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Global Trade, Investment and Finance Landscape.”

[4] Ibid., Asia Development Bank 2017 “Meeting Asia’s Infrastructure Needs.”

[5]  Jamil Hijazi and James Kennedy 2020. “How the United States Handed China Its Rare-Earth Monopoly.” Foreign Policy.; Vekasi, Kristin 2019. “China’s Control of Rare Earth Metals.” The National Bureau of Asian Research.

[6] Mikkaela Salamatin 2021, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is Reshaping Human Rights Norms, 53 Vanderbilt Law Review 1427; ​​Business & Human Rights Resource Centre 2022, “Going Out Responsibly: Time to Take Human Rights Seriously in Chinese Overseas Business Operations.”;

[7] Harald Pechlaner, Greta Erschbamer, Hannes Thees, and Mirjam Gruber 2020, China and the New Silk Road: Challenges and Impacts on the Regional and Local Level. Springer. 

[8]Josh Rogin, 2019. “China’s efforts to undermine democracy are expanding worldwide.” Washington Post.

[9] Of Chinese laborers abroad, some came from urban areas, some were rural migrant workers [农民工], but the official figure only include those who are recruited through legitimate means. Here, to distinguish the Chinese workers working overseas, we avoided using the term “migrant workers,” since it could be confused with rural migrant workers within China who migrated from province to province for better opportunities; instead, we opted for the more general term “overseas Chinese workers.” However, many workers we came into contact with did not go abroad with a legitimate and fair labor contract or legal status, leaving them to labor abuse.

[10] The People’s Republic of China Department of Commerce, “2021年我国对外劳务合作业务简明统计” [A Concise Report on China International Labour Cooperation 2021]. 2020.

[11]  International Labour Organization. 2012. ILO indicators of Forced Labor. Geneva: International Labour Organization.

[12] International Labour Organization (ILO), Migration for Employment Convention (Revised), C97. 1949, a convention stipulating member states’ protection for migrant workers.

[13] International Labour Organization (ILO), Migrant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, C143, 24 June 1975, C143.

[14] UN General Assembly, International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, 18 December 1990,

[15]  International Labour Organization (ILO), “China Ratifies the Two ILO Fundamental Conventions on Forced Labour.” Forced labour Conventions, August 12, 2022.–en/index.htm

[16] “Commission moves to ban products made with forced labour on the EU market,” European Commission, September 14, 2022,

[17] U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime: Message from the President of the United States Transmitting United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (The “Convention”); two Supplementary Protocols: (1) Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, and (2) Protocol against Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on November 15, 2000. The Convention and Protocols were signed by the United States on December 13, 2000, at Palermo, Italy. Washington :U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004.; C029 – Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) and C105 – Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) were both ratified by China in August 2022, see “ILO Member Country Profile: China,” the International Labour Organization, October 1, 2022.

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