Uyghurs ‘purchased’ by factories across China

A newly released report has revealed the mass transfer of Uyghur and other ethnic minority citizens from the region of Xinjiang to factories across China which claim to be part of the supply chain of 83 well-known global brands including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Samsung, Sony, Volkswagen, Fila, Puma, Lenovo, Nike, and Adidas, among others, raising serious concerns on its impact on the global supply chain, which is now fuelling the already long-standing disquiet on human rights violations in the region.

What has been happening?

The infamous Chinese territory Xinjiang, which has been making headlines constantly over the past couple of years due to their internment camps involving the systematic detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims, has seen about 80,000 Uyghurs transferred to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019, as estimated by Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in a latest report released on 1 March titled “Uyghurs for Sale: ‘Re-education’, forced labor, and surveillance beyond Xinjiang”.

Xinjiang is an autonomous territory in northwest China where the majority population are of the Muslim minority. Following some violent clashes between Han and Uyghur workers in a Guangdong factory which led to the dreadful July 2009 Urumqi (the capital of Xinjiang) riots, the Chinese Government started holding regular nationwide “Xinjiang Aid” conferences. The Xinjiang Aid program sought subsidies and political inducements towards “aiding” the region’s development and stability.

The program involved widescale monitoring and led to the detention of Uyghurs from the region, which the Chinese Government deemed was done in order to combat terrorism and religious extremism.

It was reported by the BBC last month that a recent leak of a list of details pertaining to more than 3,000 individuals from Xinjiang laid out the day-to-day happenings of the citizens; from how they dress to how often they pray, how their family members behave, and who they contact. Based on this information, many Uyghurs were detained; some of the reasons cited for this detention were arbitrary – such as “used to wear a veil” and “mobile phone click web link unintentionally landed on foreign website”.

These individuals were then detained in internment camps, which the Chinese Government lightly calls “schools”, news of which started to emerge on international media in 2017. It is now widely known that these camps have been expanding over the past couple of years and that the conditions are appalling, with reports of even some detainees undergoing torture and sexual abuse.

The Xinjiang Aid project kicked into a higher gear in 2017, where a policy termed “Industrial Xinjiang Aid” was pushed. Here, the Uyghurs who were supposedly “re-educated” at the internment camps and had “graduated”, were to be employed by local governments and corporations.

Online, advertisements were seen making the rounds claiming to supply government-sponsored Uyghur workers from Xinjiang to other provinces. These ads contained animated depictions of these people in traditional attire, while another advert was seen online offering 1,000 young Uyghur workers between the ages of 16 and 18 who have the advantages of “semi-military style management, can withstand hardship, no loss of personnel…” and that a “minimum order” was “100 workers”.

Towards the end of 2018, the Xinjiang Development and Reform Commission announced that this “cheap labor” had become an important driver of Xinjiang’s economy.

The ASPI report highlights the companies involved in “purchasing” these workers for their factories and the conditions the workers are subject to.

Which big companies?

ASPI’s aptly titled report contains three case studies of factories around China, namely Qingdao

Taekwang Shoes Co. Ltd (青岛泰光制鞋有限公司), whose primary customer is Nike Incorporated; Haoyuanpeng Clothing Manufacturing Co. Ltd (浩缘朋制衣有限公司, HYP), which advertises strategic partnerships with Fila, Adidas, Puma, and Nike; and O-Film Technology Co. Ltd (欧菲光科技股份有限公司), which has manufactured the selfie cameras for iPhones 8 and X, and which mentions on its website that it manufactures camera and touchscreen components for Huawei, Lenovo, and Samsung.

In addition, the report has identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies directly or indirectly benefitting from the exploitation of these Uyghur workers, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Acer, Adidas, Alstom, Amazon, Apple, ASUS, BAIC Motor, BMW, Bombardier, Bosch, BYD, Calvin Klein, Candy, Carter’s, Cerruti 1881, Changan Automobile, Cisco, CRRC, Dell, Electrolux, Fila, Founder Group, GAC Group (automobiles), Gap, Geely Auto, General Motors, Google, Goertek, H&M, Haier, Hart Schaffner Marx, Hisense, Hitachi, HP, HTC, Huawei, iFlyTek, Jack & Jones, Jaguar, Japan Display Inc., L.L.Bean, Lacoste, Land Rover, Lenovo, LG, Li-Ning, Marks & Spencer, Mayor, Meizu, Mercedes-Benz, MG, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, Mitsumi, Nike, Nintendo, Nokia, The North Face, Oculus, Oppo, Panasonic, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma, Roewe, SAIC Motor, Samsung, SGMW, Sharp, Siemens, Skechers, Sony, TDK, Tommy Hilfiger, Toshiba, Tsinghua Tongfang, Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret, Vivo, Volkswagen, Xiaomi, Zara, Zegna, and ZTE.

It also lists out a total of 54 companies implicated in what could be forced labor schemes within Xinjiang itself in its appendix, some of which overlap with the 83 companies outside of Xinjiang.

While some of the companies mentioned in the report have disputed the claims, some stated that they were not in agreements with the suppliers while some said they had already ended the agreements in 2020.

Nike released a statement on their website on the issue, stating that they “have been conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of people from XUAR (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region)”.

The statement also explained that since last year, Taekwang’s Qingdao facility – the very same one covered in the report’s first case study – has not recruited new employees from XUAR and is currently seeking expert advice on the best and most responsible approach to conclude the employment of remaining employees from XUAR. It also stated that Taekwang has confirmed that their employees from XUAR have the ability to end their contracts at any time without repercussion, and that historically, many have done so.

A majority of the companies are yet to respond, and ASPI would publish updates as and when they do. 

What’s the work environment like?

The Uyghurs sent to the factories across China are faced with similar environments to the internment camps where their every move is monitored, they’re required to attend after-work Mandarin classes, participate in “patriotic education”, and are prevented from practicing their religion.

The workers are housed in closed-off factories like the one pictured below, where they are allowed little or no movement, while being kept away from their families in Xinjiang.

This is the satellite image of HYP’s factory in Shule (Yengixahar) county, Xinjiang. There are several security posts throughout the facility and it is fully enclosed by perimeter fencing and has several residential dorm buildings further isolated by fencing.

Source: ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre

It was also discovered that every 50 Uyghur workers are assigned one government minder and are also monitored by security personnel. Evidence also suggests that some of these factories pay the Uyghur workers below the minimum wage.

Implications for the global supply chain

While pointing out that many companies are sourcing components from Chinese factories that exploit Uyghurs, the report also directs attention to risks, both legal and reputational, for companies, customers, and investors, as they may find themselves linked, either directly or indirectly, to forced labor practices and violation of rights, and makes several recommendations to the Chinese Government, the corporations involved, foreign governments, and consumers, civil society groups including NGOs, labor unions, and consumer advocacy groups.

These recommendations include the Chinese Government providing unfettered access to the companies to investigate the factories, to uphold the rights of the workers, to ratify the International Labor Standards, and to uphold the legitimate rights of citizens.

In addition, it recommends that the companies that may find themselves in breach of laws, should conduct immediate due diligence, and if forced labor practices are discovered, to use this as leverage to address these, and be transparent in its dealings on this front including by publicly publishing its due diligence and audit findings.

However, the global supply chain is already beginning to feel the repercussions.

In the US, a bill was proposed on Wednesday (11), co-sponsored by five Republicans and six Democrats in the House and one Republican and two Democratic senators, which, if passed, would have a dramatic impact on importers and disrupt supply chains.

While American law already prohibits the importation of goods manufactured using forced labor, this new bill does not only strengthen this stance, but goes a step further to completely ban imports from the entire Xinjiang region, unless “clear and convincing evidence” is shown in the case of the goods being imported.  This is backed by the logic that it is assumed that all goods manufactured in Xinjiang are tainted with forced labor.

This comes soon after a joint statement was released the previous day (10) by the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), National Retail Federation (NRF), Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), and Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA) on the “Reports of Forced Labor in Xinjiang”.

The organizations expressed their concerns about the reports on forced labor and stated that it presents “profound challenges to the integrity of the global supply chain” and that “accepting the status quo is not an option”.

It also stated: “While we are taking action, our industry cannot solve this alone. A successful solution for all, including the workers, will require state-to-state engagement and collaborative partnerships across government, industry, labor advocates, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders. Therefore, we urge the US Government to immediately engage a multi-stakeholder working group to develop and deploy a collective approach that accurately assesses the problem, and find constructive solutions that target bad actors and protect the rights of workers and the integrity of global supply chains.” (Compiled by B.Mohan for Colombo Gazette)