Matthew Keegan
Dec 13, 2022

Major auto brands linked to forced labour in Uyghur region

Based on a damning new report, brands such as Honda, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz are shown to have ties to forced labour in China. These claims are primarily associated with the production of steel and aluminium used in the making of nearly every major car part.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

International car manufacturers including Honda, Ford, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz Group, Volkswagen Audi Group, Toyota, Tesla, Renault, NIO, and Stellantis Group have supply chain links to forced labour in the Uyghur region. This is according to Driving Force, a new report published last week by researchers at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University.

In a six-month investigation that analysed publicly available documents, researchers found massive and expanding links between Western car brands and Uyghur abuses, in everything from the production of hood decals and car frames to engine casings, interiors and electronics.

In total, the report found that 100 car manufacturers are sourcing from companies in the Uyghur region. From these 100, 38 of them have documented engagement in labour transfer programmes. These transfer programmes have been described as "abusive" as they aim to thin out minority populations.

These transfer programmes are categorised as ‘forced labour’. Campaign understands that Uyghur workers—as many as 100,000 of them—have been transferred out of Xinjiang in recent years to jobs in other provinces. This reduces the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Between 2017 and 2019, an estimated 80,000 Uyghurs have been transferred out of Xinjiang and assigned to factories across China under a central government policy known as Xinjiang Aid.

Some have described this as “coercive labour and forced displacement”, and these may be classified as crimes against humanity in an international court of law, according to a new report by German researcher Adrian Zenz.

"It’s been four years that we have all known that there is forced labour in the Uyghur region," Laura T. Murphy, professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University, tells Campaign Asia-Pacific. "There is no longer any excuse for any company—especially those with the resources that major automotive manufacturers have—to be unaware of exposure from the Uyghur region. Luckily, our report gives them a jumpstart on that process." 

The report describes the expansion of auto parts and materials production in the Uyghur region, documents the abuses committed by large industry actors, and traces the products of those businesses to Western car brands, through direct and indirect supply-chain links.

The report finds that every major traditional automotive and electric vehicle manufacturer has significant exposure to forced labour in the Uyghur region. Findings also show that car manufacturers are sourcing electronics from firms that are employing trafficked Uyghurs in factories in other parts of China. Some are unwittingly sourcing metals from the Uyghur region, because metal trading companies own equity in Xinjiang smelters.

Some of the greatest exposure to Uyghur abuses comes from steel and aluminium used to make car frames, axels, bodies, engine casings, wheels and brakes. The world’s largest steel and aluminium producers have shifted into the Uyghur region under Chinese government subsidies and incentives. But tires, interiors, windshields, batteries and practically every other major part are also implicated.

Uyghur workers—as many as 100,000 of them—have been transferred out of Xinjiang in recent years to jobs in other provinces. (Getty Images)

How do auto brands respond?

Campaign Asia-Pacific reached out to car manufacturers implicated in the report for comment.

Stellantis Group (Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep) said they are currently investigating claims made in the report and are corresponding with their supply base. 

"At Stellantis, we take these matters extremely seriously," says Jeremy Townsend, group communications director. "We have Global Responsible Purchasing Guidelines which are strictly adhered to when awarding direct suppliers' contracts with our company. Building strong responsible supply chains is an important focus for us.  We monitor our suppliers’ compliance with our Code of Conduct and respect for human rights by requiring contractual commitments and ongoing evaluation."

A word cloud of the top brands associated with the social conversations that occured days after the report was released. (Carma)

Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz responded to our request for comment and also said they take such reports very seriously.

"Mercedes-Benz has no direct operations in the mentioned region," says Benjamin Kraft, communications manager for the group. “Mercedes-Benz seeks to ensure that its products contain only materials that have been mined and produced without violating human rights or environmental standards. Mercedes-Benz regularly makes spot checks with its suppliers in China and other countries."

In a statement issued last week, General Motors said: “We actively monitor our global supply chain and conduct extensive due diligence, particularly where we identify or are made aware of potential violations of the law, our agreements, or our policies."

And Volkswagen Group told Campaign: "If the Volkswagen Group learns of allegations, it investigates them immediately by using our 'Supply Chain Grievance Mechanism'. Serious violations such as forced labour could result in termination of the contract with the supplier if mitigation measures fail."

However, Murphy who led the research team for the Driving Force report, said no car manufacturer has yet to confirm they will extricate their supply chain from the Uyghur region.

"Companies that have responded to me have all indicated that they do not intend to source forced labour made products and do intend to comply with all laws," says Murphy. “But none have been bold enough to say that they are explicitly working to extract their supply chains from the Uyghur region."

Meanwhile, the report urges the auto industry to take immediate action because it “cannot wait another day to trace their supply chains back to the raw materials”. To do anything short of full tracing would be an enormous legal, ethical, and reputational risk.

Based on the severity and pervasiveness of forced labour identified in the report and the extent to which it pervades automotive supply chains, Murphy and the research team recommend car brands to further investigate.

"Trace your supply chains to the raw materials," says Murphy. "End all contracts with suppliers engaged in or sourcing from the Uyghur region in any way, work collaboratively across the sector to ensure zero tolerance for forced labour throughout value chains."

Campaign Asia

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