‘Uyghurs for sale’: Report exposes forced labour beyond Xinjiang, implicating major brands

Major brands have been named and shamed in a report exposing suspected forced labour at Chinese factories.

Major brands have been named and shamed in a report exposing suspected forced labour at Chinese factories. Image: Yip Wong/ASPI

The Chinese government has secretly transferred thousands of Uyghurs and other ethnic minority citizens from Xinjiang to factories across the country, according to a new report that implicates brands including Apple, BMW, Google, Nike and Samsung.

At least 80,000 Uyghurs have been transferred out of Xinjiang and are working under conditions that “strongly suggest forced labour” at factories across China, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report said.

These factories supply scores of well-known global brands spanning the technology, clothing and automotive sectors.

83 brands named and shamed

The report identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies “directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labour transfer programs as recently as 2019”, with some brands linked to multiple factories.

One factory where Uyghur workers were sent in July 2019 listed CRRC – a Chinese state-owned rail manufacturer currently building trains in Melbourne, Australia – among its customers.

The brands named in the report were:

  • Tech: Acer, Apple, Amazon, ASUS, Cisco, Dell, Founder Group, General Electric, Google, Hisense, Hitachi, HP, HTC, Huawei, iFlyTek, Japan Display Inc, Lenovo, LG, Meizu, Microsoft, Mitsumi, Nintendo, Nokia, Oculus, Oppo, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Siemens, Sony,Toshiba, Tsinghua Tongfang, Vivo, Xiaomi, ZTE
  • Clothing: Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Carter’s, Cerruti 1881, Fila, Gap, H&M, Hart Schaffner Marx, Jack & Jones, Lacoste, L.L.Bean, Li-Ning, Nike, The North Face, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma, Skechers, Tommy Hilfiger, Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret, Zara, Zegna
  • Consumer goods: Bosch, Electrolux, Haier
  • Cars: BMW, BAIC Motor, Changan Automobile, GAC Group, Geely Auto, General Motors, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, MG, Mitsubishi, Roewe, SAIC Motor, SGMW, Volkswagen.
  • Other: Alstom, Bombardier, BYD, Candy, CRRC, Mayor

ASPI gave the companies a chance to respond to the allegations prior to the report’s publication.

Adidas, Bosch and Panasonic said they had no direct contracts with the suppliers.

But none of the companies were able to completely rule out a link further down their supply chain.

However, American clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch told The New Daily that it had cut dies with suppliers suspected of using forced labour independently of the ASPI report.

An Abercrombie & Fitch spokesman said the firm had stopped sourcing from one of the factories named by ASPI as a supplier following a “regular review” last year.

“In 2019, as part of our regular review of our global supply chain, we decided to stop sourcing from this spinner from 2020 onwards for any of our company’s brands; we formally instructed our vendor not to source any material from this spinner,” a statement by the firm said.

Abercrombie & Fitch “does not believe” it sources from either of the two other factories named by ASPI as its suppliers, the spokesman said.

“As a company, we are committed to ensuring our products are only made in safe and responsible facilities, and we believe that business should only be conducted with honesty and respect for the dignity and rights of all people.”

Global supply chain ‘tainted’

Titled Uyghurs for sale: Re-education, forced labour and surveillance beyond Xinjiang, the report was written by researchers from ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre.

Lead author Vicky Xiuzhong Xu said the findings show that forced Uyghur labour “is now a global problem”.

We are seeing the practices of the ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang being exported to major factories across China and implicating both global brands and their hundreds of millions of consumers.’’
– Vicky Xiuzhong Xu

Global brands “all have in common” a supply chain that “appears to be tainted by forced and surveilled labour”, Ms Xu said.

“At no stage can we forget this forced and surveilled labour is coming from one of the most repressed regions of the world, where huge parts of the population remain under active surveillance, house arrest or arbitrary detention,” she said.

China has already attracted “international condemnation for its network of extrajudicial ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang”, but the research exposes “a new phase in China’s social re-engineering campaign targeting minority citizens”, the report said.

Ms Xu warned that companies using forced Uyghur labour in their supply chains could “find themselves in breach of international and domestic anti-modern slavery laws”.

Uyghurs transferred despite COVID-19 outbreak

Between 2017 and 2019 at least 80,000 Uyghur workers were transferred out of Xinjiang and assigned to factories through labour transfer programs under a central government policy known as ‘Xinjiang Aid’, the ASPI report said.

The estimated figure is “conservative and the actual figure is likely to be far higher”, it said.

The transfers from Xinjiang to factories in eastern and central China have continued in 2020, despite much of the country remaining in lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The practice marks a new phase of China’s crackdown on the Uyghur and other Turkic minorities, following official claims that detained minorities had been freed, the researchers said.

Some factories appear to be using Uyghur workers sent directly from ‘re-education’ camps, they found.

Cases of “disturbing forced labour practices” were outlined in the report, but the researchers said it was “impossible to confirm whether all employment transfers from Xinjiang are forced”.

Uyghur workers transferred from Xinjiang face harsh conditions and strict surveillance, the report said.

“In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances,” it said.

Chinese authorities and factory bosses manage these Uyghur workers by ‘tracking’ them both physically and electronically.

Numerous sources, including government documents, show that transferred workers are assigned minders and have limited freedom of movement,’’ the report said.

One provincial government document obtained by the researchers described a central database that extracts information from a WeChat group, and an unnamed smartphone app that tracks the movements and activities of each worker.

The report also revealed that Chinese government officials and private brokers were paid a price per head for workers on the labour assignments.

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