DIVIDE, CONQUER AND profit might be the way to read a new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an independent think tank, that says Uighurs are being distributed around factories across the country under conditions ‘that strongly suggest forced labour’.
Some of these workers, the report claims, have been sent directly from the network of extrajudicial ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang that have attracted international condemnation since reports of them first emerged in 2018.
The report also says its estimate of the 80,000 Uighurs involved between 2017 and 2019 at 27 factories in nine provinces is conservative, and that the factories the Uighurs have been allocated to ‘are in the supply chains of at least 83 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen’.
This is not the first report of assigned contract Uighur labour, particularly in Xinjiang, and the camps have on occasion been described by officials as vocational training camps to furnish Uighurs with new work skills. However, few reports, if any, have been as detailed as this latest one. Nor have they such widespread and systematic assignment of labour.
The Institute’s report describes many of the ‘government-sponsored’ Uighurs as leading segregated lives under ‘semi-military-style management’; made to attend Mandarin-language classes, participate in patriotic education classes and barred from practising Islam.
State media has always reported that Uighur participation in labour transfer schemes is voluntary, and officials have denied any commercial use of forced labour from Xinjiang, holding that the camps are part of the campaign against religious extremism.
The report acknowledges that some of the multinationals it names, who also include household US, Chinese, Japanese and European brands from Abercrombie & Fitch to Haier, Toshiba and Zara, may be using Uighur labour unknowingly. It calls on all 83 brands to audit their supply chains as well as to join foreign governments and civil society groups to increase pressure on Beijing to end the use of Uyghur forced labour and extrajudicial detentions.
Whether these calls will get any traction during the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, which has already disrupted international supply chains out of China, is another matter. However, it could provide one more excuse for companies thinking of diversifying their supply chains for other reasons to do so now.