Foreign Labor in Chinese Prisons

Burmese nationals and other foreigners in Chinese prisons face forced labor under brutal conditions.

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drug_305 Women drug addicts at a rehabilitation center in Kunming, 1999 file photo.

BANGKOK—Burmese nationals and other foreigners in south China prisons are being forced to produce consumer goods for private companies, according to two former prisoners.

The two Burmese citizens, who served out sentences in Chinese jails for drug trafficking offenses, said in an interview that nearly all Burmese imprisoned in China during the last five years were held in a prison in Kunming, the capital of China’s southern Yunnan province.

There, they said, prisoners were forced to perform excessive amounts of work in an unsafe environment for very little pay.

The former inmates estimate there are over a thousand Burmese male prisoners and about 400-500 female prisoners in China.

The first former prisoner, who did not provide his name, said that Burmese nationals are often treated worse than other inmates because the Burmese embassy rarely provides them any assistance.

“The Burmese prisoners suffer a lot of problems. Some are hospitalized. There are a lot of Burmese prisoners who have cuts on their arms, some with broken legs. Some even die because of exhaustion,” he said.

The male former inmate, who first arrived in Kunming Prison in 2007, described the work he was assigned to upon his arrival.

“I had to sort out four bags of beans a day. Each bag weighed 60 to 70 pounds…There was no such work in the past. Before, we stopped work at 5:30 p.m. no matter how important it was. Now it is not like that,” he said.

“We had to sort those four bags of beans until we finished. Sometimes we would not stop until 2:00 a.m. from the time we started in the morning,” the man said.

Seventeen-hour workday

Map showing the location of Kunming Prison. Graphic: RFA
The second former prisoner also did not provide her name, but said that rules issued by Chinese authorities limiting prison work to eight hours a day were ignored by authorities during her time in Kunming.

She said she was forced to crochet, make boxes for jewelry and retail liquor, and clean mushrooms for export as an inmate.

“In this prison, you have to wake up at 5:00 a.m. and are given one piece of ‘Pausi’ (flour bread)…At about 11:00 a.m. you eat whatever lunch they give you—usually rice and curry—and then you go back to work,” she said.

“You keep on working and in the evening you have your meal. Then you go back to work until 10:00 p.m. If there is important work to be done, you have to work until the break of dawn,” the woman said.

The former prisoners said inmates are not allowed sufficient sleep or provided with the nutrition they need to support them during their long work schedules.

“The main problem is that they ask you to work excessively and you do not get enough sleep…Sometimes I got very hungry in the night,” said the female former inmate.

“If we took food into the living quarters we were [punished]. So we asked them for permission to take rice into our sleeping quarters at night…We got dinner at 5:00 p.m. and then have to work until about 10:00 p.m. so we got hungry at night,” she said.

“If you do not have enough sleep you cannot eat. There is a ringing in your ears and you see hallucinations…Sometimes you cannot hear what you yourself are saying so you shout when you talk,” the woman said.

They said the work was done for private companies in the area and that inmates were paid 10 yuan (U.S. $1.46) per month while workers outside of the prison earned 40 to 50 yuan (U.S. $5.85 to $7.32) for similar work over the same period.

“[The prisons] make a lot of profit. The women wardens and all the junior wardens have cars of their own,” the former female inmate said

Both former prisoners said that Burmese inmates are also prevented from contacting their families to send them extra money, and are treated worse than their fellow inmates because they are unable to bribe prison officers.

Prison or factory?

When contacted by telephone, an official at the Prison Management Bureau of Yunnan Province said that most foreign prisoners in Yunnan are felony prisoners sentenced to more than 15 years in jail for offenses including drug smuggling.

“Most of them are from Burma and Taiwan and are now held in the Yunnan No. 1 Prison,” he said, although he refused to provide the number of foreign prisoners currently held in Yunnan.

The official said that foreign prisoners are “managed the same as Chinese prisoners” and as such they are “re-educated through labor like Chinese inmates.”

“Their work is paid for in accordance with their work load and they have the full protection of relevant labor laws and regulations,” he said.

But the official refused to provide details on what kind of work the foreign prisoners might do and denied any relationship between prisons and factories where the foreign inmates work.

“When the factories need to process materials they might contact prisons and then prisoners can work for them,” he said.

“Allowances are not given to prisoners in cash. Instead prison officers put the money onto a card and inmates can use the card to buy things in prison,” he added.

When contacted, an operator in Kunming said none of the area’s prisons had registered their numbers with the telephone directory.

An Internet search revealed the telephone number for the Supervisory Office of the Yunnan No. 2 Women’s Prison in Kunming, but calls to that number were directed to a message for the “Yunnan Kunyu Garment Factory, with 30 years of history in garment production.”

It has been previously reported that Yunnan No. 2 Prison also operated under the name “Yunnan Golden Horse Machinery Factory.”

Little assistance provided

It is questionable whether Burmese nationals are given fair trials due to the language barrier they face in China and because their lawyers are often assigned by Chinese courts.

A man surnamed Ling, who works as a Burmese and Chinese interpreter in such court cases, says judges are often too impatient to hear explanations by foreign defendants.

“Some of the judges are inexperienced and don’t give enough time for those charged to fully explain,” he said.

Ling said that he is usually asked to work as an interpreter by the court because the Burmese often lack the ability to hire one themselves.

The Chinese government has not released an official list of Burmese prisoners in China, and with little information to guide rights groups, many are forced to suffer alone.

“You cannot compare Burmese prisoners with other foreign prisoners [in Chinese jails]. The Burmese prisoners are right at the bottom level,” the man said.

“If the prisoners are Russian nationals…then the Russian Embassy would come and visit them. That sort of thing. Ordinarily, no one comes to visit Burmese prisoners,” he said.

Original reporting in Burmese by Tin Aung Khine and in Mandarin by Ding Xiao. Burmese service director: Nancy Shwe. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from Burmese by Soe Thinn and from Mandarin by Arthur Tang. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes.


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