Tech giants push back on forced Uyghur labour claims

ASPI report claims technology supply chains make use of workers that were forced to relocate out of Xinjiang province.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
Chinese workers assembling lighters in factory.
Image: Getty Images

On Monday, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report on the use of forced Uyghur labour in factories that are part of the supply chains of 83 global brands.

The report said that over a period of two years, 80,000 Uyghurs -- a Muslim Turkic minority from the far north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang -- were moved throughout the rest of China and into factories, often living beside the factory, where they undergo language and ideology training once work is over for the day.

Previous work from ASPI had shown the presence of re-education camps in Xinjiang, and this report added that factory workers were said to be "graduates" of that program.

"The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has identified 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces that are using Uyghur labour transferred from Xinjiang since 2017," the report said.

"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.

"In addition to constant surveillance, the threat of arbitrary detention hangs over minority citizens who refuse their government-sponsored work assignments."

The report added that local governments and brokers are allegedly paid a price for each worker transferred.

See also: Chinese company leaves Muslim-tracking facial recognition database exposed online

Among those companies named were Amazon, Apple, Asus, Cisco, Dell, Google, Hitachi, HP, HTC, Huawei, Lenovo, LG, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, Nokia, Oppo, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Siemens, Sony, Toshiba, Vivo, Xiaomi, and ZTE.

ZDNet asked 13 of those companies for a response to ASPI's claims, of which five were returned by the time of publication.

Dell told ZDNet it regularly conducts due diligence of its supply chain.

"This does include audits based on criteria set by the Responsible Business Alliance, and assesses multiple factors, including migrant labour at factories. When there are issues or allegations made, we immediately investigate using all available resources," the American giant said.

"Though our current supplier audit data shows no evidence of forced labour in our supply chain, we take all allegations of this nature seriously and will investigate fully."

LG Electronics, an arm of LG and separate from LG Display that is also named in the report, said it had no connection to one of the factories named in the report.

"LG Electronics expects all of its suppliers to abide by our Supplier Code of Conduct which is very clear on our stance regarding forced labour. LG Electronics has no direct relationship with any company named OFILM," the Korean chaebol said.

"We will look into our supplier network with instructions to our Tier 1 suppliers to resolve or terminate relationships with subcontractors who are non-compliant with our Code of Conduct."

Apple handed ZDNet a statement issued earlier in the week that said it had not seen the report and has not provided an update on whether it had read the report by Friday.

"Apple is dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve," the company said.

In its 2019 Supplier Responsibility Progress Report, Apple pointed to receiving a reward for taking "concrete steps to eradicate forced labour" from its supply chain.

Chinese phone brand Oppo told ZDNet it follows the laws in the places it operates.

"At present, Oppo has operations in more than 40 countries and regions around the world. We comply with all local laws and regulations in which we operate," it said.

"Additionally, we have comprehensive and strict compliance requirements for suppliers in our supply chain to ensure their adherence to local law and regulations."

For Huawei, a company that has a long history of animosity with ASPI, the Chinese giant played the man, not the ball, and went on the attack saying ASPI was doing the bidding of the US, who help fund the think tank.

"The plain fact of the matter is that ASPI is currently registered on the Foreign Influence Transparency list due to the fact it receives huge amounts of its funding from the United States government and it also receives funding from a large number of US weapons manufacturers," Huawei said.

"Given the strong anti-China US foreign policy -- manifested in the ongoing attacks on Huawei -- ASPI has a huge conflict of interest when commenting on matters concerning Huawei.

"Australians need to properly understand that ASPI is absolutely not an independent voice when it comes to Huawei."

ASPI is also partially funded by the Australian Department of Defence.

The think tank has drawn criticism from the likes of Labor Party factional warrior and former minister Kim Carr.

"[ASPI] berates Australian researchers for collaborating with Chinese partners but ignores the fact that some of its own sponsors do the same," Carr said last month.

Defending the organisation, director of the International Cyber Policy Centre at ASPI, Fergus Hanson, said there is no editorial line on China in the reports it produces.

"Of course, ASPI has no monopoly on the ability to trawl through CCP policy documents and statements to unearth new insights and shed light on the party's stated plans for China and the rest of the world. It's just that so few others in Australia and elsewhere invest significant time to do so," he wrote on Tuesday.

"People don't have to agree with our analysis, but it at least provides a factual basis for a debate."

"There is no more urgent or important policy issue for Australia than to think through how to engage China. The more that debate is informed by data and clear-sighted analysis, the better."

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