Business, Finance & Economics

Life on Planet Uighur

Updated:

SHAOGUAN, China — At the heart of a deadly June toy factory clash that sparked mass protests and killings 2,000 miles away in China’s far west lies a government policy that sends thousands of young Muslim Uighurs to fill labor gaps in the southeast.

Experts say despite yawning cultural differences and communication problems between Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese, there typically is little language training or other preparation for young Uighurs before they arrive in Guangdong province for factory jobs. Most come straight off the farm, far even from the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, and are dropped directly into an atmosphere that might as well be a different planet.

Their governments and factory managers — accustomed to hiring millions of Chinese workers from all across the country to work together — may have misjudged the Uighurs’ ability to quickly assimilate. The Uighurs, after all, speak a completely different language, adhere to Islam and don’t eat pork, which is China’s staple meat. They are given separate food choices, but that’s about it when it comes to cultural considerations.

“Company bosses don’t care about such things. They only care about money, cost,” said Xiao Qingshan, who runs an aid group for migrant workers in Guangdong province.

Factory life, seemingly well suited to millions of young Chinese migrant farm kids out on their first big adventure away from home, often fails for the Uighurs, who simply don’t blend easily with Han culture. The wages are attractive to many, as is the sense of fun. But the barriers are tough to overcome.

“You can see many Uighurs here on the streets without jobs, because they can't speak Mandarin,” said Xiao. “They first came and tried to find stable work but instead, they took up small street-side businesses like selling lamb kebabs. Some of them have turned to crime.”

The “surplus labor” program, designed to move workers from poorer, economically stagnant places like Xinjiang to fill often low-paying jobs others no longer want, has been the subject of controversy specific to Uighurs for several years. Han Chinese move to Xinjiang to work, while Uighurs move out from Xinjiang into other parts of China, creating attempted cultural assimilation via economics.

“The government enforces repressive labor policies, including measures that have a disproportionate negative impact on ethnic minorities,” the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China said about Xinjiang in its 2008 report.

The commission talked about forced labor, where farmers are coerced primarily through financial threats from local governments to send their children to faraway factories. Last year, Nike faced accusations that a Taiwanese factory making its shoes in Huizhou was employing under-aged girls against their will.

Factory workers in Huizhou said three-quarters of the 1,200 Uighur workers there last year went home. The other 300 will leave in August, though the reason for their departure is unclear. One Uighur worker said he was forced to move from Kashgar to Huizhou for work, but would not elaborate on how.

Last Friday in Shaoguan, Ahat Sayet, head of the Shufu district in Kashgar that sent 818 Uighur workers to the toy factory in May, spoke about local labor policies. Despite the killing of two Uighurs during the June 26 brawl in their dorm, Sayet said Kashgar would send more people to the toy factory, after first bolstering education and training for new arrivals.

Still, the hundreds of Uighurs who worked at the factory apparently are being kept behind locked gates 10 miles up the road in an old, heavily guarded factory compound. Local officials say they have resumed toy factory work, but did not allow any independent interviews with Uighurs to discuss either the murders or their current lives and work.

Friends at another factory several hours away said the Uighurs in Shaoguan are not being allowed to leave the gated compound, and are given only limited phone access — via two public telephones. They report that some who were outside when the attack commenced may have escaped, but many more remain inside.

The Uighurs were sent to Shaoguan’s toy factory in May and, workers said, problems began soon after. Rape accusations against the Uighur men were posted online. Though police have said there were no rape complaints, the situation disintegrated. Late on June 25, the police said, a massive, two-hour, bloody brawl broke out that killed two and injured more than 100. Uighurs said they were sleeping when the Han launched an unprovoked attack.

The murderous mayhem could have happened at any of the scores of factories across China’s south where Uighur and Han workers have been thrown together. What remains unknown is how and if the government will continue its labor policy, while making sure to prevent ethnically charged mayhem again.

More on China's labor situation:

At a Nike factory in China, Uighurs worry

Uighur workers held behind locked gates

The end of the "Chinese Dream?"