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How to help the Uyghurs

With all the drama and other news going on last year it was hard to find energy to keep up on the persecution of the Uyghurs by the Chinese Government. The Uyghurs (or Uighurs) are one of 55 ethnic groups in China, located mainly in the Northwestern part of the country, known as Xinjiang – officially the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). If you read one article on this, I’d recommend Gulbahar Haitiwaji’s story in The Guardian which bears the following subheading:

“After 10 years living in France, I returned to China to sign some papers and I was locked up. For the next two years, I was systematically dehumanised, humiliated and brainwashed.”

It’s probably easier for Westerners to associate with this story as the woman, after fleeing Xinjiang with her daughters in 2006 to join her husband (also a Uyghur refugee) had built a new life in France. The story of her call back to Xinjiang to complete paperwork begins like a horror script – like Jordan Peele’s Get Out – and it just gets worse. After five months in Chinese police cells being interrogated about her family (the police had a photo of her daughter at a protest in France) she was moved to a “transformation through education” camp that the government has built to “correct” Uyghurs. Here are a few quotes:

A big metal shutter, perforated with tiny holes that let the light in, hid the outside world from us. Eleven hours a day, the world was reduced to this room.

Nadira showed me around the dormitory, which had the heady smell of fresh paint: the bucket for doing your business, which she kicked wrathfully; the window with its metal shutter always closed; the two cameras panning back and forth in high corners of the room. That was it. No mattress. No furniture. No toilet paper. No sheets. No sink. Just two of us in the gloom and the bang of heavy cell doors slamming shut.

One day, one of my classmates, a woman in her 60s, shut her eyes, surely from exhaustion or fear. The teacher gave her a brutal slap. “Think I don’t see you praying? You’ll be punished!” The guards dragged her violently from the room. An hour later, she came back with something she had written: her self-criticism. The teacher made her read it out loud to us. She obeyed, ashen-faced, then sat down again. All she’d done was shut her eyes.

Every Friday, we had an oral and written test. By turns, beneath the wary eye of the camp leaders, we would recite the communist stew we’d been served up.

Death lurked in every corner. When the nurses grabbed my arm to “vaccinate” me, I thought they were poisoning me. In reality, they were sterilizing us. That was when I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.

Bound and blindfolded inmates, likely Uyghurs, being transferred at a train station in Xinjiang in 2018. Photograph: War on Fear, via The Guardian.

Recognition of the treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide

On Monday (Feb 22, 2021) Canada’s parliament passed a motion recognizing China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as genocide. There was also a motion to move the 2022 Winter Olympics away from Beijing if the treatment continues. To be clear, the “treatment” of at least one million Uyghurs involves capture, incarceration, torture, rape, brainwashing, and the sterilization of women.

On Tuesday, the UK government voted to employ a delay tactic of setting up a judicial committee to assess evidence of genocide crimes. Just when you thought BoJo may not be so bad…

The US has already classified the treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide although Trump had reportedly told Xi Jinping that the camps were “exactly the right thing to do.”

What I want to focus on next is the growing body of evidence that Uyghurs are being put to work under forced labor conditions, making apparel and electronic components that are in part being supplied to major multinational companies.

A secure facility north of Kashgar, Xinjiang, believed to be a Uighur camp – The Guardian.

Forced labor of Uyghurs

First off, here are a few quotes from the 2020 report commissioned by US Congress:

Experts have documented a large network of mass internment camps in which authorities have arbitrarily detained up to 1.8 million individuals from predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups.

Chinese government-sponsored forced labor in the XUAR constitutes forced labor under the International Labour Organization and is a form of human trafficking under the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

The risk for complicity in forced labor is high for any company importing goods directly from the XUAR or those partnering with a Chinese company operating in the region.

Satellite   imagery,   personal   testimonies,   and official   documents   indicate   that   the   XUAR authorities are systematically forcing predominantly     Muslim     ethnic     minorities, including  Uyghurs,  Kazakhs,  and  others,  to engage  in  forced  labor  in  the  XUAR.

This is not the only report on Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang. A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) titled Uyhgurs for Sale was also published in March 2020. It states:

In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances. Numerous sources, including government documents, show that transferred workers are assigned minders and have limited freedom of movement.

Mass internment camp detainees in Xinjiang – US Congressional Report, March 2020.

Which companies are benefiting from Uyghur forced labor?

The US report state “that the following companies are suspected of directly employing forced labor or sourcing from suppliers that are suspected of using forced labor:

Adidas, Badger Sportswear (has since committed to stop sourcing from the XUAR), Calvin Klein, Campbell Soup Company, Coca-Cola Company, COFCO Tunhe Company, Costco, Esquel Group, Esprit, H&M, Hetian Taida, Huafu Fashion Company, Kraft Heinz Company, Litai Textiles, Nike, Patagonia, Tommy Hilfiger”

The Australian report “has identified 82 foreign and Chinese companies potentially directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through abusive labour transfer programs as recently as 2019: Abercrombie & Fitch, Acer, Adidas, Alstom, Amazon, Apple, ASUS, BAIC Motor, Bestway, 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, Oculus, Oppo, Panasonic, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma, SAIC Motor, Samsung, SGMW, Sharp, Siemens, Skechers, Sony, TDK, Tommy Hilfiger, Toshiba, Tsinghua Tongfang, Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret, Vivo, Volkswagen, Xiaomi, Zara, Zegna, ZTE.”

In the second list, I highlighted (in bold) five companies that were listed in both reports. The ASPI report provided detailed evidence in two case studies, tracing examples of supply chains for Nike shoes and Apple iPhones. I won’t reproduce everything here but take a look at the report for more detail, including a photo of Apple CEO Tim Cook’s visit to O-Film, a supplier of iPhone camera parts.

According to a now deleted press release, Cook praised the company for its ‘humane approach towards employees’ during his visit to O-Film, asserting that workers seemed ‘able to gain growth at the company, and live happily.

One of three examples posited by the ASPI, linking Apple to Uyghur forced labor
An example of tracing Uyghur forced labor in a supply chain by the ASPI

How are companies responding to reports of Uyghur forced labor?

It’s worth bearing in mind that some brands (such as Badger Sportswear) have adjusted their supply chain after being notified of evidence of forced labor. According to End Uyghur Forced Labor, a few other clothing brands (Marks and Spencer, Eileen Fisher, ASOS, and Reformation) have also committed to a supply chain free of forced labor.

What’s more telling is that, according to the NY Times and Washington Post, Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola have been lobbying the US government to dial back legislation to limit Uyghur forced labor.

The legislation in question is the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (bill 6210)

This bill imposes various restrictions related to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous region, including by prohibiting certain imports from Xinjiang and imposing sanctions on those responsible for human rights violations there.

Goods manufactured or produced in Xinjiang shall not be entitled to entry into the United States unless Customs and Border Protection (1) determines that the goods were not manufactured by convict labor, forced labor, or indentured labor under penal sanctions; and (2) reports such a determination to Congress and to the public.

Reporting for the NY Times:

Greg Rossiter, the director of global communications at Nike, said the company “did not lobby against” the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act but instead had “constructive discussions” with congressional staff aides aimed at eliminating forced labor and protecting human rights.

However, the NY Times goes on to report that:

In the first three quarters of 2020, Nike spent $920,000 on in-house lobbying of Congress and other federal agencies. Disclosures do not break down expenditures by topic, but show Nike lobbied on matters including physical education grants, taxes and climate change, as well as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

Apple, which has extensive business ties to China, has also lobbied to limit some provisions of the bill, said two congressional staff members and another person familiar with the matter. Disclosure forms show that Apple paid Fierce Government Relations, a firm led by former staff aides to Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and President George W. Bush, $90,000 to lobby on issues including Xinjiang-related legislation in the third quarter.

Coca-Cola has also invested heavily, spending $4.68 million in the first three quarters of 2020 on in-house lobbying and hiring Empire Consulting Group and Sidley Austin to lobby on issues including the act.

The Washington Post reports on Apple’s lobbying efforts:

[Congressional] staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks with the company took place in private meetings, said Apple was one of many U.S. companies that oppose the bill as it’s written. They declined to disclose details on the specific provisions Apple was trying to knock down or change because they feared providing that knowledge would identify them to Apple. But they both characterized Apple’s effort as an attempt to water down the bill.

“What Apple would like is we all just sit and talk and not have any real consequences,” said Cathy Feingold, director of the international department for the AFL-CIO, which has supported the bill. “They’re shocked because it’s the first time where there could be some actual effective enforceability.”

“The [ASPI] report also cites a 2018 speech by a Chinese government official announcing the transfer of workers from Xinjiang to the Hubei Yihong factory, which the report alleges is the parent company of an Apple supplier. According to the report, the factory’s website said it supplied GoerTek, which makes Apple’s AirPods. In the speech, the official referred to the labor transfers as a “green channel” and ordered workers to be “grateful” to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Executive Summary for Tim Cook

As Apple CEO, you may not have time to read all of this, so I’ll boil it down to the essentials:

  1. The Chinese government is imprisoning, torturing, brainwashing, and sterilizing the Uyghurs
  2. Uyghurs are reportedly being forced to work in factories in Apple’s supply chain (iPhone cameras and AirPods)
  3. This is a breach of UN human trafficking protocols and a crime against humanity
  4. Apple has been aware of this situation in March 2020, at the very latest
  5. Reporting in the Washington Post and NY Times (Nov 2020) provides evidence that Apple has been lobbying the US to water down the proposed Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act
  6. Apple claimed to have addressed issues of poor working conditions in China that emerged years ago – this is a whole new level of “poor working conditions” in that it’s a form of slavery within a chain of systematic genocide

Apple is starting to lose all credibility and this will only grow worse with failure to act. Why not put Apple’s world-class iPhone recycling robots to work and re-use camera parts? Apple could launch a model that does not have a link to Uyghur forced labor and also has lower carbon and material footprints, thanks to recycled content. Most cameras are still functional when phones are returned to Apple – they can be integrated into a new low-priced model with updated operating system, etc.

This summary also applies to John Donahoe, Nike’s new CEO, and James Quincey, CEO of Coca-Cola. What does it take for a multinational corporation to take decisive and swift action to address a wrong? You would think that genocide would be enough.

What you can do to help the Uyghurs:

“The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, struck a far stronger tone than before when he spoke recently of “torture and inhumane and degrading treatment … on an industrial scale” in Xinjiang. But the remedies he put forward – requiring firms to do better on due diligence – were feeble. – The Guardian.

Scholar Adrian Zenz warned that “Soon, many or most products made in China that rely at least in part on low-skilled, labor-intensive manufacturing, could contain elements of involuntary ethnic minority labor from Xinjiang”

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