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Global brands using 'forced Uighur labor' in China

March 2, 2020

China has allegedly moved thousands of Uighurs into factories that supply major brands including Volkswagen, Nike, Apple and BMW. A new report says the factory conditions "strongly suggest forced labor."

People wear masks at a protest in support of Uighurs
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/L. Jin-Man

An Australian think tank has accused the Chinese government of transferring more than 80,000 ethnic Uighurs out of internment camps and into factories that supply major international brands.

In a new report, Uighurs for sale, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) identified at least 27 factories across China where detainees from camps in the western region of Xinjiang had been relocated since 2017.

"Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labor, Uighurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 83 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors," the think tank said.

The brands, it added, included "Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen."

China's Foreign Ministry rejected the report as having "no factual basis," during a regular press briefing on Monday.

"This report is just following along with the US anti-China forces that try to smear China's anti-terrorism measures in Xinjiang," spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

Uighurs: Imprisoned for their faith and culture

Corporate responsibility

James Leibold, one of the report's authors and an expert on Chinese history and society at Australia's La Trobe University, said companies needed to take responsibility.

Companies should "immediately undertake a thorough and transparent due-diligence process to determine if, and to what extent, supply chains have been exposed to any form of forced labor," he told DW.

"This needs to be done not by acting parent companies in China, but by bringing in independent outside observers to do a full audit on the supply chain and the manufacturing process."

Read moreChina's treatment of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang: 'I had the chills'

Jewher Ilham speaks with DW

VW and Apple respond

When asked about the concerns raised in the report, Volkswagen told news agencies that none of the listed companies is currently a direct supplier. In a statement, the German automaker said it holds "direct authority" in all areas of its business and "respects minorities, employee representation and social and labor standards."

According to a local media article cited by the ASPI report, a factory that has manufactured cameras for Apple's iPhones received 700 Uighur laborers in 2017.

In its response, Apple cited a statement issued earlier, in which the the tech giant said it was "dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve."

"We work closely with all our suppliers to ensure our high standards are upheld," the statement added.

Read moreUighur whistleblower: China is 'arresting people without any reason'

'Harsh, segregated life'

Citing government documents and local media reports, ASPI said the mass transfers to factories were part of a state-sponsored scheme that "is tainting the global supply chain."

It said workers often lead a "harsh, segregated life" in the factories, and are subjected to constant surveillance, prevented from practicing their religion and forced to take organized Mandarin classes and ideological training.

Leibold, one of the report's authors, said the labor transfers could be seen as an extension of Xinjiang's "re-education" camps, as well as a "response to the slowing economy in China, and the cost of the mass-internment of Uighurs to local governments in Xinjiang."

The United Nations estimates that more than a million Muslim Uighurs have been detained in camps in Xinjiang. Rights groups say the camps are part of an effort to suppress Uighur Islamic customs and religion, but China describes the sites as vocational education centers that aim to teach Mandarin and job skills, and stamp out religious extremism.

William Yang, DW's correspondent in Taipei, contributed to this report.

nm/stb (Reuters, AFP)

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