“Aside from political incentives, the business of ‘buying’ and ‘selling’ Uyghur labour can be quite lucrative for local governments and commercial brokers.”
What’s the Problem?
The Chinese government has facilitated the mass transfer of Uyghur and other ethnic minority citizens from the far west region of Xinjiang to factories across the country. Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghurs are working in factories that 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 report estimates that more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019, and some of them were sent directly from detention camps.2 The estimated figure is conservative and the actual figure is likely to be far higher. In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories,3 undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours,4 are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances.5 Numerous sources, including government documents, show that transferred workers are assigned minders and have limited freedom of movement.
China has attracted international condemnation for its network of extrajudicial ‘re-education camps’ in Xinjiang.7 This report exposes a new phase in China’s social re-engineering campaign targeting minority citizens, revealing new evidence that some factories across China are using forced Uyghur labour under a state-sponsored labour transfer scheme that is tainting the global supply chain.
What’s the Solution?
The Chinese government should uphold the civic, cultural and labour rights enshrined in China’s Constitution and domestic laws, end its extrajudicial detention of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, and ensure that all citizens can freely determine the terms of their own labour and mobility.
Companies using forced Uyghur labour in their supply chains could find themselves in breach of laws which prohibit the importation of goods made with forced labour or mandate disclosure of forced labour supply chain risks.9 The companies listed in this report should conduct immediate and thorough human rights due diligence on their factory labour in China, including robust and independent social audits and inspections. It is vital that through this process, affected workers are not exposed to any further harm, including involuntary transfers.
Foreign governments, businesses and civil society groups should identify opportunities to increase pressure on the Chinese government to end the use of Uyghur forced labour and extrajudicial detentions. This should include pressuring the government to ratify the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention on Forced Labour, 1930 (No. 29) and Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention.10 Consumers and consumer advocacy groups should demand companies that manufacture in China conduct human rights due diligence on their supply chains in order to ensure that they uphold basic human rights and are not complicit in any coercive labour schemes.
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 Motors, Google, Goertek, 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 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.
Forced Uyghur labour
The ILO lists 11 indicators of forced labour.25 Relevant indicators in the case of Uyghur workers may include:
being subjected to intimidation and threats, such as the threat of arbitrary detention, and being monitored by security personnel and digital surveillance tools
being placed in a position of dependency and vulnerability, such as by threats to family members back in Xinjiang
having freedom of movement restricted, such as by fenced-in factories and high-tech surveillance
isolation, such as living in segregated dormitories and being transported in dedicated trains
abusive working conditions, such as political indoctrination, police guard posts in factories, ‘military-style’ management, and a ban on religious practices
excessive hours, such as after-work Mandarin language classes and political indoctrination sessions that are part of job assignments.26
Chinese state media claims that participation in labour transfer programs is voluntary, and Chinese officials have denied any commercial use of forced labour from Xinjiang.27 However, Uyghur workers who have been able to leave China and speak out describe the constant fear of being sent back to a detention camp in Xinjiang or even a traditional prison while working at the factories.28
In factories outside Xinjiang, there is evidence that their lives are far from free. Referred to as ‘surplus labour’ (富余劳动力) or ‘poverty-stricken labour’ (贫困劳动力), Uyghur workers are often transported across China in special segregated trains,29 and in most cases are returned home by the same method after their contracts end a year or more later.30
Aside from political incentives, the business of ‘buying’ and ‘selling’ Uyghur labour can be quite lucrative for local governments and commercial brokers. According to a 2018 Xinjiang provincial government notice, for every rural ‘surplus labourer’99 transferred to work in another part of Xinjiang for over nine months, the organiser is awarded Ұ20 (US$3); however, for labour transfers outside of Xinjiang, the figure jumps 15-fold to Ұ300 (US$43.25).100 Receiving factories across China are also compensated by the Xinjiang government, receiving a Ұ1,000 (US$144.16) cash inducement for each worker they contract for a year, and Ұ5,000 (US$720.80) for a three-year contract.101 The statutory minimum wage in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s regional capital, was Ұ1620 (US$232.08) a month in 2018.102
In recent years, advertisements for ‘government-sponsored Uyghur labour’ also began to appear online. In February 2019, a company based in Qingdao published a notice advertising a large number of ‘government-led … qualified, secure and reliab
Multiple sources suggest that in factories across China, many Uyghur workers lead a harsh, segregated life under so-called ‘military-style management’ (军事化管理).31 Outside work hours, they attend factory-organised Mandarin language classes, participate in ‘patriotic education’,32 and are prevented from practising their religion.33 Every 50 Uyghur workers are assigned one government minder and are monitored by dedicated security personnel.34 They have little freedom of movement and live in carefully guarded dormitories, isolated from their families and children back in Xinjiang.35 There is also evidence that, at least in some factories, they are paid less than their Han counterparts,36 despite state media claims that they’re paid attractive wages.37
The Chinese authorities and factory bosses manage Uyghur workers by ‘tracking’ them both physically and electronically.38 One provincial government document describes a central database, developed by Xinjiang’s Human Resources and Social Affairs Department and maintained by a team of 100 specialists in Xinjiang, that records the medical, ideological and employment details of each labourer.39
The database incorporates information from social welfare cards that store workers’ personal details. It also extracts information from a WeChat40 group and an unnamed smartphone app that tracks the movements and activities of each worker.41
Chinese companies and government officials also pride themselves on being able to alter their Uyghur workers’ ideological outlook and transform them into ‘modern’ citizens, who, they say, become ‘more physically attractive’42 and learn to ‘take daily showers’.43
In some cases, local governments in Xinjiang send Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres to simultaneously surveil workers’ families back home in Xinjiang44— a reminder to workers that any misbehaviour in the factory will have immediate consequences for their loved ones and further evidence that their participation in the program is far from voluntary.
A person with knowledge of a Uyghur labour transfer program in Fujian told Bitter Winter, a religious and human rights NGO, that the workers were all former ‘re-education camp’ detainees and were threatened with further detention if they disobeyed the government’s work assignments.45 A Uyghur person sent to work in Fujian also told the NGO that police regularly search their dormitories and check their phones for any religious content. If a Quran is found, the owner will be sent back to the ‘re-education camp’ for 3–5 years.46
The treatment of Uyghurs described in this report’s case studies is in breach of China’s Constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on ethnicity or religious belief,47 as well as international law. While we are unable to confirm that all employment transfers from Xinjiang are forced, the cases for which adequate detail has been available showcase highly disturbing coercive labour practices consistent with ILO definitions of forced labour.