American brands are using literal slave labor in China

The spread of the coronavirus in China has brought a lot of unwanted (by corporate executives) attention to the supply chains of some major companies, especially Apple. Apple is largely dependent on cheap labor in China to manufacture its products. If you would like a general sense of what Apple’s manufacturing operations in China are like, see the New York Times‘ 2016 article How China Built “iPhone City” with Billions of Perks for Apple’s Partner and the Guardian’s Life and Death in Apple’s Forbidden City. Apple’s Chinese factories are horrific. They are more like modern concentration camps – with employees that live in barracks on-site – than factories.

But it would seem that wage-slaves and suicide nets are far from the only human rights concerns for western brands with supply chains centered in China. Many (including names you recognize, like Apple, Nike, Gap, Sony, Samsung, and Volkswagen) have been using literal slave labor, offered to them by the Chinese government from the Muslim-minority Uyghurs that the Chinese government has been keeping in re-education camps for years now:

Since 2017, more than a million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minorities have disappeared into a vast network of ‘re-education camps’ in the far west region of Xinjiang,11 in what some experts call a systematic, government-led program of cultural genocide.12 Inside the camps, detainees are subjected to political indoctrination, forced to renounce their religion and culture and, in some instances, reportedly subjected to torture.13 In the name of combating ‘religious extremism’,14 Chinese authorities have been actively remoulding the Muslim population in the image of China’s Han ethnic majority.

The ‘re-education’ campaign appears to be entering a new phase, as government officials now claim that all ‘trainees’ have ‘graduated’.15 There is mounting evidence that many Uyghurs are now being forced to work in factories within Xinjiang.16 This report reveals that Chinese factories outside Xinjiang are also sourcing Uyghur workers under a revived, exploitative government-led labour transfer scheme.17 Some factories appear to be using Uyghur workers sent directly from ‘re-education camps’.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has identified 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces that are using Uyghur labour transferred from Xinjiang since 2017. Those factories claim to be part of the supply chain of 83 well-known global brands.18 Between 2017 and 2019, we estimate that at least 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang and assigned to factories through labour transfer programs under a central government policy known as ‘Xinjiang Aid’ (援疆).19

It is extremely difficult for Uyghurs to refuse or escape these work assignments, which are enmeshed with the apparatus of detention and political indoctrination both inside and outside of Xinjiang.20 In addition to constant surveillance, the threat of arbitrary detention hangs over minority citizens who refuse their government-sponsored work assignments.21

Most strikingly, local governments and private brokers are paid a price per head by the Xinjiang provincial government to organise the labour assignments.22 The job transfers are now an integral part of the ‘re-education’ process, which the Chinese government calls ‘vocational training’.23

A local government work report from 2019 reads: ‘For every batch [of workers] that is trained, a batch of employment will be arranged and a batch will be transferred. Those employed need to receive thorough ideological education and remain in their jobs.’24

This report examines three case studies in which Uyghur workers appear to be employed under forced labour conditions by factories in China that supply major global brands. In the first case study, a factory in eastern China that manufactures shoes for US company Nike is equipped with watchtowers, barbed-wire fences and police guard boxes. The Uyghur workers, unlike their Han counterparts, are reportedly unable to go home for holidays (see page 8). In the second case study of another eastern province factory claiming to supply sportswear multinationals Adidas and Fila, evidence suggests that Uyghur workers were transferred directly from one of Xinjiang’s ‘re-education camps’ (see page 18). In the third case study, we identify several Chinese factories making components for Apple or their suppliers using Uyghur labour. Political indoctrination is a key part of their job assignments (see page 21).

This research report draws on open-source Chinese-language documents, satellite imagery analysis, academic research and on-the-ground media reporting. It analyses the politics and policies behind the new phase of the Chinese government’s ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. It provides evidence of the exploitation of Uyghur labour and the involvement of foreign and Chinese companies, possibly unknowingly, in human rights abuses.

In all, ASPI’s research has 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: 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 Electric, General Motors, Google, 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, 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, ZTE. Some brands are linked with multiple factories.

The data is based on published supplier lists, media reports, and the factories’ claimed suppliers. ASPI reached out to these 83 brands to confirm their relevant supplier details. Where companies responded before publication, we have included their relevant clarifications in this report. If any company responses are made available after publication of the report, we will address these online.

ASPI notes that a small number of brands including Abercrombie & Fitch advised they have instructed their vendors to terminate their relationships with these suppliers in 2020. Others, including Adidas, Bosch and Panasonic, said they had no direct contractual relationships with the suppliers implicated in the labour schemes, but no brands were able to rule out a link further down their supply chain.

The report includes an appendix that details the factories involved and the brands that appear to have elements of forced Uyghur labour in their supply chains. It also makes specific recommendations for the Chinese government, companies, foreign governments and civil society organisations.

I have written before about how Hunter Biden’s China-focused investment company had invested in technology companies that had been blacklisted in the United States for military espionage and supplied surveillance equipment to the Chinese government for monitoring and tracking the Uyghur population. It would be interesting to know if this program was driving government contracts for that technology.

It has been public knowledge that this level of atrocity is happening in China for years now. A couple years ago, the AP reported that the Chinese Communist Party was forcing Uyghur families to take government spies into their homes and treat them like members of the family. The government spies would then report back to party officials any thought crimes happening in the family, like a desire to practice their religion.

Bringing manufacturing back to the United States is not only an economic talking point. It’s a major moral issue too.

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