China’s Uighur minority are being moved from their homes and mass detention camps into factories to work under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour for suppliers to a range of multinationals including Apple and Huawei, according to new research.
More than 80,000 Uighur residents and former detainees from the north-western region of Xinjiang have been transferred to factories in a range of supply chains including electronics, textiles, and automotives, according to the report released on Sunday by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). At least 83 Chinese and foreign multinationals are known to be benefiting from “forced Uyghur labour under a state-sponsored labour transfer scheme”, the think-tank found.
It names 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces as beneficiaries of workers transferred from Xinjiang since a crackdown on the Uighur Muslim minority began in early 2017. While a handful of companies had previously been named in public reports, their supply chains were concentrated in Xinjiang itself, particularly the cotton industry.
Over the past three years, the Chinese government has detained some 1.8m Uighur Muslims in a system of camps in the region. While Beijing says some have been released, many have been sent to work in factories across China as part of government-organised labour-transfer schemes. The schemes also include individuals who have not previously been interned.
The transferred workers typically undergo “ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances”, according to the ASPI.
The think-tank arrived at its conclusions by cross-referencing state media and Chinese government reports announcing Xinjiang work-transfer projects to lists of suppliers for international brands, as well as local companies’ claims of who they were supplying.
Family members of forced labourers in Xinjiang have previously said their relatives are not allowed to leave the factories and that communications with the outside world, if allowed at all, are monitored.
The factories implicated by Xinjiang labour transfers stretch as far as Nanchang, a city in southern China where Apple supplier O-Film Technology has three factories, according to Apple’s supplier list. O-Film also says it supplies Huawei and other multinationals with camera and touchscreen components.
Local media in southern Xinjiang reported that in the space of a few days in 2017, 700 workers were transferred to O-Film’s Jiangxi plants. Although local media did not mention they were ex-detainees, it described the work-transfer programme as aiming to “gradually change their ideas, letting them grow into . . . youth who would understand the party’s compassion and feel gratitude for the party”.
The phrase is reminiscent of Beijing’s official line that the purpose of Xinjiang’s mass-detention camps is “re-education” or ideological correction. The government has a target to transfer 100,000 people from the Uighur-majority southern Xinjiang region into industrial labour in the three years to 2020.
Asked to comment on the findings, Apple pointed to a statement previously given to the Washington Post: “Apple is dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. We have not seen this report but we work closely with all our suppliers to ensure our high standards are upheld.”
Huawei said: “Huawei requires all our suppliers to comply with international standards and applicable laws as a condition of doing business with us. We have read the ASPI report and are looking into the matter.”
Exporting products made by prison labour is against Chinese law, as well as the World Trade Organization’s member rules, although prison labour has been documented across various parts of China’s export supply chain.
Get alerts on Xinjiang when a new story is published