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Forced labor of Uyghurs underlines Asia's slavery scourge

Labor abuses and human trafficking are wreaking cultural destruction across the region

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Forced labor of Uyghurs underlines Asia's slavery scourge

A facility believed to be a 're-education camp' where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, north of Akto in China's Xinjiang region. China is transferring tens of thousands of Uyghur detainees out of internment camps and into factories that supply some of the world's leading brands, an Australian think tank said on March 2. (Photo: Greg Baker/AFP)

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The still evolving horror of China’s mass incarceration of at least one million Uyghurs has taken a fresh turn with a new report from an Australian think tank that details the transport of Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities across China to work in factories under guard.

The partly government-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has released a report titled “Uyghurs for sale” naming international brands who use China as part of their supply chains who may have been using, probably inadvertently, forced or coerced labor.

These revelations are a timely but desperately sad reminder than human slavery is alive and well on many levels in today’s world, with Asia — thanks to the Chinese and North Korean governments as well as Southeast Asia’s slavery-riddled fishing industry — now its unfortunate epicenter.

“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,” the report states.

“Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labor, 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.”

The report says the rapid expansion of the nationwide system of Uyghur labor presents a new challenge for foreign companies operating in China and questions how companies can secure the integrity of their supply chains and protect their brands from the reputational and legal risks of being associated with forced, discriminatory or abusive labor practices.

Such “labor transfer” schemes are an additional challenge to the reputation of Chinese brands overseas, already tainted in many cases — such as Huawei Technologies and many state-owned enterprises controlled by Beijing — with fears of state interference.

ASPI said its research identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang via potentially abusive labor transfer programs.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 2 described concerns over coerced labor “groundless” and “slander” while the Chinese government has said that the labor program is a way to train Uyghurs and other minorities and give them jobs.

But experts say that like the Xinjiang "re-education camps" from which the workers “graduate,” the forced labor program is part of a broad effort by Beijing to destroy Uyghur culture as part of cultural genocide that is already well documented. This has involved the banning of beards and head scarves, forcing Uyghurs to eat during the annual month-long Ramadan fast and breaking up family units. There have also been reports of majority ethnic Han Chinese conducting extended “homestays” in Muslim households.

“In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organized 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,” the ASPI report states.

Slavery in the fishing industry

Other parts of Asia have come in for sustained criticism for coerced labor that can turn into outright human slavery, with the fishing industry of Southeast Asia, led by Thailand, coming under the microscope.

“Workers aboard fishing vessels are essentially isolated for long periods, deprived not only of contractual guarantees but also of the most basic fundamental rights," said Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin during a visit to the Rome headquarters of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization on World Fisheries Day in 2016. The president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, has also spoken out on the subject.

Much of the output of the fishing sector is destined for the Chinese market, but like goods made in Chinese factories it can end up in the markets and on the plates of consumers in the West and other parts of the world.

Asia has various levels of human trafficking, including one decades-long disturbing trend of moving young women from Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam into marriages across the border in China. This has caused cultural destruction among border hill tribes.

With China at the heart of so many of these issues, what can we do? It is quixotic to think that the Chinese will uphold the civic, cultural and labor rights enshrined in its constitution and domestic laws, end extrajudicial detention of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, and ensure that all citizens can freely determine the terms of their own labor and mobility.

Self-interest is unfortunately a strong driver among companies using forced Uyghur labor in their supply chains who could find themselves in breach of laws which prohibit the importation of goods made with forced labor or require disclosure of forced labor supply chain risks.

The report recommends that all the companies listed in its report “should conduct immediate and thorough human rights due diligence on their factory labor 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.”

But foreign governments and businesses, who have stood by for so long in the interests of trade and profit, need to join civil society groups in increasing pressure on the Chinese government to end the use of Uyghur forced labor and extrajudicial detentions. This should also apply to bride trafficking and all other forms of forced, coerced or slave labor.

A key suggestion of the report is that China should be pressured to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Forced Labor.

It also calls on consumers and consumer advocacy groups to demand companies that manufacture in China conduct human rights due diligence on their supply chains to ensure that they uphold basic human rights and are not complicit in any coercive labor schemes.

Still, one of the biggest disappointments of the Vatican’s ongoing talks with Beijing is that the Uyghur issue is something that Pope Francis has effectively been silent on.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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