Apple, Foxconn, and 81 others are accused of using Uighur forced labor

Although China’s surveillance and forced “re-education” of Uighur Muslims have been well-documented over the past three years, there’s been less attention to the Chinese government’s “sale” of relocated Uighurs to factories supplying major global brands until now. A bombshell report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute shines light on the practice, which implicates key technology contract manufacturer Foxconn, numerous customers including Apple, and a variety of well-known automotive and fashion brands in profiting from forced Uighur labor in violation of international law.

According to the report, China has relocated over 80,000 Uighurs — a “conservative” estimate — from Xinjiang to work in factories elsewhere in the country, forcing them to take ideological and language classes, while forbidding them from Muslim religious observance, and limiting their movement. A central government policy known as “Xinjiang Aid” assigns the Uighurs to factories for “vocational training,” with local governments and private brokers receiving per-person fees to organize labor assignments at factories. The Uighurs are effectively barred from leaving their jobs to visit their families, and threatened with detention if they refuse their assignments.

It goes without saying that forced labor is morally repugnant, but it’s also illegal in many countries, subjecting participating businesses to risks of importation bans or mandatory disclosures of related supply chain risks. Beyond the basic human rights violations they suffer, forced laborers may face additional punishments — such as detention or being placed in more dangerous jobs — for attempting to escape assigned roles.

While the ASPI report doesn’t suggest that Apple or other foreign-owned brands such as Adidas, Fila, and Nike are directly employing forced laborers, the companies are all accused of relying on contract manufacturers and/or component suppliers that do so. In some cases, the key contract manufacturers for global technology and luxury companies are taking workers directly from “re-education camps” for use in assembling consumer electronics products, clothes, and cars.

O-Film, a company that made front-facing cameras for the iPhone X and 8-series devices, procured at least 700 Uighur laborers before Apple CEO Tim Cook was photographed visiting the company in December 2017, and may have had over 1,000 by that year’s end. The massive Zhengzhou factory of Foxconn, said to be responsible for half of the world’s iPhones, similarly employed some Uighur laborers, as did Apple component suppliers Hubei Yihong and Highbroad.

The list of 83 companies includes over 30 technology brands “directly or indirectly benefiting” from using Uighur workers — a veritable who’s who of consumer electronics, such as Acer, Amazon, Apple, ASUS, Bosch, Cisco, Dell, Google, Hisense, Hitachi, HP, HTC, Huawei, Japan Display, Lenovo, LG, Meizu, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nokia, Oculus, Oppo, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, TDK, Toshiba, Vivo, Xiaomi, and ZTE. Fashion brands include Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Gap, H&M, L.L. Bean, Lacoste, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma, Skechers, Tommy Hilfiger, Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret, and Zara, alongside automotive companies ranging from BMW and Changan to GM, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, SAIC, and Volkswagen.

ASPI says that it contacted the companies to offer opportunities for clarification on the reported details, and some replied. According to the report, “a small number of brands including Abercrombie & Fitch” have already requested that their contract manufacturers terminate relationships with problematic suppliers, while Adidas, Bosch, and Panasonic denied direct contractual relationships with the Uyghur laborer-procuring suppliers, but didn’t rule out links within their supply chains.

The report, titled Uyghurs For Sale (based on the alternative spelling of Uighur), is worth reading in its entirety. There’s a substantial chance that the issue will be addressed by Apple, which has generally worked to address media-identified labor issues in its supply chain, albeit only after significant public attention and condemnation, rather than after the initial report. It’s worth noting that the company objected last year to a report that Chinese government-sponsored hackers exploited iPhone vulnerabilities to surveil Uighur Muslims for two years, but acknowledged that the hacking took place, while suggesting that it was for a much shorter period of time than initially claimed.

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