Tens of thousands of ethnic Uighurs were moved to work in conditions suggestive of “forced labour” in factories across China supplying 83 global brands, an Australian think-tank said in a report released on Sunday.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) report, which cited government documents and local media reports, identified a network of at least 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces where more than 80,000 Uighurs from the western region of Xinjiang had been transferred.
“Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uighurs 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 think-tank said in the introduction to its report.
The document said the transfers of labour were part of a state-sponsored programme.
It says the workers “lead a harsh, segregated life”, are forbidden to practise religion and are required to participate in Mandarin language classes.
It also says the Uighurs are tracked electronically and restricted from returning to Xinjiang.
China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday said reports the government had violated the Uighurs’ rights were untrue.
“This report is just following along with the US anti-China forces that try to smear China’s anti-terrorism measures in Xinjiang,” spokesman Zhao Lijian at a regular press briefing on Monday.
The United Nations estimates more than a million Muslim Uighurs have been detained in camps in Xinjiang over recent years as part of a wide-reaching campaign by Chinese officials to stop violent attacks.
The mass detentions have provoked a backlash from rights groups and foreign governments, which say the arbitrary nature of the detentions violates human rights.
China has denied the camps violate the rights of Uighurs and say they are designed to stamp out terrorism and provide vocational skills.
“Those studying in vocational centres have all graduated and are employed with the help of our government,” said the Foreign Ministry’s Zhao. “They now live a happy life.”
The 83 global brands mentioned in ASPI’s report either work directly with the factories or source materials from the factories, it said, citing public supplier lists and the factories’ own information.
One of the factories, O-Film Technology Co Ltd, which has manufactured cameras for Apple Inc’s iPhones, received 700 Uighur labourers as part of the programme in 2017, a local media article cited by the report said.
Apple referred Reuters News Agency to an earlier statement that said “Apple is dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. We have not seen this report but we work closely with all our suppliers to ensure our high standards are upheld.”
Telecoms giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd said it has read the report and is looking into the matter.
“Huawei requires all our suppliers to comply with international labour standards and applicable laws as a condition of doing business with us,” a spokesman said.
The other companies mentioned in the introduction to ASPI’s report – BMW, Gap Inc, Nike Inc, Samsung and Sony Corp did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment on Monday.
O-Film Technology did not respond to a request for comment, either.
Volkswagen told Reuters in a statement that none of the listed companies is a direct supplier. It said the company holds “direct authority” in all parts of its business and “respects minorities, employee representation and social and labour standards”.
The report said a small number of the brands, including Abercrombie & Fitch Co, advised vendors to terminate their relationships with these companies in 2020, and others denied direct contractual relationships with the suppliers.
ASPI describes itself as an independent think-tank whose core aim is to provide insight for the Australian government on matters of defence, security and strategic policy.