A major conference on the employment of Chinese migrant workers in the UK has heard calls for urgent action to curb illegal trafficking and exploitation.
The two-day event organised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and The University of Nottingham was part of a collaborative venture between the European Union and China called ‘Capacity Building for Migration Management in China’.
More than 70 representatives from a wide range of organisations including the Chinese Embassy in London, the ILO, the UK Gangmasters Licensing Authority and the University’s own China Policy Institute, heard how it’s estimated that there are between 150,000 and 200,000 undocumented or ‘irregular’ Chinese migrants in the UK.
Ms Lu Xu, Consul General of the Chinese Embassy said the total size of the ethnic Chinese community in the UK had 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 per cent per year.
Based upon an intensive survey in East Midlands, Dr Bin Wu from The University of Nottingham’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 per cent 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.
The University of Nottingham’s 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.
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.
Amid these calls, Roger Plant of the Geneva-based UN agency, the International Labour Organisation, said there was a need for measures other than criminal law enforcement to deal with illegal workers and related problems.
Plans were drawn up at the workshop to encourage 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. Another idea was to mobilise Chinese students and academic leaders to provide help to affected migrants.
It was also acknowledged that there must be 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.
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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.
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