Forced labor is part of the Chinese government’s arsenal of repression against the Uighur minority. In many factories, this workforce benefits major international brands, according to a report released in March.
“France looks with great attention to all the testimonies relayed by the press and human rights organizations.” Speaking to the National Assembly on Tuesday, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Yves Le Drian, “condemned” the “unacceptable practices” underway in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, relaying in particular suspicions of “forced labor” in this north-western region where several Muslim minorities live, including Uighurs and Kazakhs. Here is what we know about this specific aspect of the repression against Muslim minorities.
“It appears that there are production subsidiaries based in Xinjiang, but there has also been a tendency to send Uighur populations, some who have passed through internment camps, to the four corners of China in factories, in particular in the Guangdong region, in the south of the country, “Marc Julienne, researcher specializing in China at Ifri, told JDD. A tendency that can serve to “break up the Uighur population” on Chinese territory and “keep it under control while using this manna for production.”
A damning report
In one report Well documented published in early March, the Australian Institute for Political Strategy (Aspi) claimed that between 2017 and 2019, more than 80,000 imprisoned Uighurs had been transferred to factories “belonging to the supply chains of 83 brands known worldwide”. Among them are big names in electronics (Apple, Sony, Samsung, Microsoft, Nokia, etc.), textiles (Adidas, Lacoste, Gap, Nike, Puma, Uniqlo, H&M, etc.) and automotive (BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Land Rover, Jaguar, etc.).
“In factories far from their homes, [ces Ouïgours] usually live in separate dormitories, learn Mandarin and undergo ideological training outside of working hours, they are under constant surveillance and are prohibited from participating in religious activities, explain the authors of this report. 56 pages. Numerous sources, including government documents, show that transferred workers are assigned guards and have limited freedom of movement, “they continue.
On thirty factories identified, the report mentions in particular in detail an establishment in Qingdao producing Nike sneakers and the “re-education” of Uighur workers in factories of several subcontractors of the American giant Apple. The pinned companies “violate the laws which prohibit the importation of goods produced by resorting to forced labor”, nevertheless estimates the Aspi. The authors of the report called on them to “carry out immediate and in-depth human rights investigations in the factories supplying them in China, through independent and rigorous inspections and audits.”
For the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the report rests on “no factual basis” and aims to “denigrate the efforts of China to fight terrorism and extremism in Xinjiang”. Chinese policy in Xinjiang “has recorded good results” because “all participants in the education program against extremism have graduated and found stable employment,” said Zhao Lijiang, a spokesperson for Chinese diplomacy. State media had previously mentioned the transfer of “surplus labor force” from Xinjiang to other regions in the name of poverty reduction.
Pressure builds on China and brands
Everything seems to indicate that the practice of forced labor has continued to spread in China. “With the Covid-19 epidemic, hundreds of Uighurs were taken out of internment camps to replace sick personnel in factories in the east of the country,” assures JDD Sabine Trebinjac, anthropology specialist in China at the CNRS. A process which aims to “acculturate” this Muslim minority, according to her: “They must become ‘perfect little Chinese’.” According to New York Times, Beijing would also have forced Uighurs to make masks during the epidemic.
Despite the publication of the Australian report in early March, most of the companies involved have kicked in. Volkswagen and Daimler had argued that the mentioned were not part of their direct suppliers. BMW, while refusing to “comment on the content” of the report, had indicated that “human rights issues” were among the criteria for selecting its partners. Apple had assured “to work closely” with its suppliers so that “the highest standards are applied” …
MEP Raphael Glucksmann, Vice-Chairman of the Human Rights Sub-Committee, has started to hold the 83 groups mentioned in this report to account. In June, he said he had received a positive response from Adidas, which pledged “to cease all activity with suppliers and subcontractors involved in the exploitation of Uighur forced laborers”, but also from Lacoste. According to him, Nike on the other hand refused to follow this path.
In early July, the US State Department announced a series of sanctions against Chinese leaders involved in the repression of the Uighurs. Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party’s secretary for the Xinjiang region, who is considered the architect of Beijing’s policy on minorities, is particularly targeted. On Monday, the United States also placed eleven Chinese companies on a blacklist, which limits their access to American technologies and products, because they participate in this persecution. On the same day, Republican Senator Josh Hawley introduced a bill to punish the US companies involved, explicitly targeting Nike.