For China, Muslim workers are anxious recruits. Others see forced labor.


KASHGAR, China – The order of Chinese officials was blunt and urgent. Villagers of Muslim minorities should be pushed to jobs, wanting or not. Quotas would be established and families would be penalized if they refused to accept.

"Make people who are difficult to employ give up their selfish ideas," the labor office of Qapqal, a county in the western region of Xinjiang, said last year.

Villagers should receive military-style training to make them obedient workers, loyal to employers and the ruling Communist Party, the office said. "Change your entrenched, lazy, lax, slow, careless, carefree and individualistic customs so that they obey the company rules and work discipline," says the board.

The party is carrying out an ambitious campaign to reshape Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs, in an army of factory workers and other large employers. Under the region's labor programs, poor farmers, small merchants and idle-aged villagers attend training and indoctrination courses for weeks or months, and then are assigned to sew clothes, make shoes, sweep streets or occupy other jobs.

Programs are an expanding front in an offensive ordered by the leader of China, Xi Jinping, to strengthen control over this region where these minorities constitute approximately half of the population. They are crucial to a social reengineering strategy along with the indoctrination camps, which have housed one million or more Uyghurs and Kazakhs.

For the government, many Uighur and Kazakh villagers are "rural surplus labor," an underemployed population that threatens social stability. Putting them in constant and supervised work, says the government, will eliminate poverty, which officials have said fueled religious extremism and ethnic violence in past years.

The government describes workers as volunteers. But official documents, interviews with experts and visits from The New York Times to Xinjiang indicate that local plans uproot villagers, restrict their movements and pressure them to stay at work. Experts say such hard methods can amount to forced labor, potentially contaminating the global supply chain used by Xinjiang workers, particularly for cotton products. Japanese retailers Muji and Uniqlo say they have used cotton from the region, while Walmart has bought products from a company that until recently used Xinjiang workers.

Given the strict control over Xinjiang, "we have to assume for the moment that there is a very significant risk of coercion," said Amy K. Lehr, director of the human rights initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and co-author. of a study on Xinjiang labor programs.

Forced labor could arise "even if coercion was implicit or if the programs offered workers decent income," he added.

The executive, Sun Yijie, a former soldier, said the company drove a tight boat to turn the villagers into workers. "Starting with military exercises before they begin their work, we foster a sense of discipline," he said.

Video images posted online show Jinfujie workers in gray and orange uniforms lined up For a mood rally. "A successful future," they shouted in unison.

The company has said it won an order from Germany to manufacture hundreds of thousands of ski pants. Jinfujie did not answer questions about the claimed order. During a recent visit, the guards prohibited Times reporters from visiting the Jinfujie factory or the surrounding industrial zone.

Dozens of manufacturing areas have emerged in Xinjiang, demonstrating the government's ambitions to rebuild the region. Mr. Xi, China's leader, promised to end poverty throughout the country at the end of 2020, and Xinjiang officials face intense pressure to create jobs.

"The offensive to eradicate poverty has reached the crucial stage in a decisive battle," said Chen Quanguo, secretary of the Xinjiang Communist Party, earlier this month on a tour of southern Xinjiang. "Transmit the pressure down, level by level."

Labor programs depend on attracting companies from the richest east coast in China, where fewer young people want to work in production lines. Xinjiang has offered manufacturers cheap labor, as well as generous tax exemptions and subsidies.

"They are still not as fast as workers from other parts of China," said He Tan, a businessman who owns a small factory on the outskirts of Hotan, a city in Xinjiang.

Many are separated from their families. A government directive of Qapqal he ordered that the children of working couples be taken care of [villages of origin for young people, interned for the elderly] so that their parents could move to work.

Workers' movements are highly controlled if they are far from home. In Yanqi County, in the north of the region, workers sent from the south cannot resign unless they receive written permission from several officials, in accordance with local government regulations.

Labor recruits undergo a "political investigation,quot; to determine if they pose a security risk. In Qapqal County, officials imposed rules to qualify potential recruits from the majority to the least reliable. The less reliable had to attend indoctrination classes in the afternoon, while only the most reliable could leave the county to go to work.

"There is great pressure on people to sign employment contracts," said Darren Byler, a Xinjiang expert at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Byler said many residents believed that resisting job transfers could lead to detention. "The threat of the camps looms over everyone's head, so there really is no resistance to factory work assigned," he said.

Official Chinese media report that workers earn $ 400 and up to a month, a decent income. The reality may differ, especially in smaller and more difficult factories. In a municipality in southern Xinjiang, two-thirds of the 43 factory employees whose salaries were included in the online records earned $ 114 a month, according to Adrian Zenz, an expert in Xinjiang who studied labor programs.

Amanzhol Qisa, a 31-year-old Xinjiang resident, spent a year in an indoctrination camp and in April was sent to work in a clothing factory for three months. She was paid $ 115 a month, less than half the minimum wage, according to her husband, Muhamet Qyzyrbek.