The Chinese Ministry of Commerce on Tuesday denied reports that Chinese firms were employing prison labour on overseas projects, describing the reports as “nonsense with no facts or evidence.”
The government was responding to recent articles by New Delhi-based scholar Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, which described the use of forced convict labour on infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka and in building 4,000 houses in the Maldives.
Mr. Chellaney told on Tuesday that he had learnt of the use of prison labour last year, but only wrote the articles after receiving “unimpeachable confirmation from two different countries where China has brought in convict labourers to work on projects.” Tuesday's statement from the government “had not denied the specific cases” in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, he said.
Several diplomats spoke to on Tuesday from countries where Chinese firms were working on big projects dismissed the likelihood that prison labour was being widely used, citing security concerns as well as an already sensitive situation involving Chinese firms overseas.
“Chinese workers overseas is already a sensitive issue, just by their being there and working on projects in large numbers,” said a diplomat from an African country. “Why on earth will China make matters worse by shipping out criminals? It is very hard to believe.”
However, the possible use of convict labour by Chinese firms in Sri Lanka has already stirred debate. Opposition politicians claimed in June that 25,000 Chinese convict labourers were working on the island. The debate even spread to Tamil Nadu, where AIADMK general secretary Jayalalithaa called on New Delhi to look into the matter, suggesting there was a possible security threat to India.
Mr. Chellaney said Opposition parties in several countries in Africa and in Papua New Guinea had voiced concerns at the presence of Chinese workers with criminal records.
The Ministry of Commerce dismissed the suggestion in Tuesday's statement, saying that under its codes on overseas contracted projects, “enterprises could only send staff [members] who were eligible and had no criminal records.”
China does, however, have a system of forced prison labour within its borders, with convicts sent to “reform through labour” camps. According to Mr. Chellaney, the forced prison labour system had in the past year “started following Chinese investments overseas” to select projects.
The Ministry of Commerce said in the statement that convicted criminals and people sent to re-education through labour camps “are prohibited from travelling abroad under the Chinese law.” Convicted criminals in China are also generally denied passports.
In India, visa restrictions do not allow the employment of large numbers of Chinese workers, limiting the number to one per cent of the total number of locals employed on power projects.