Allegations of forced labor at Volkswagen’s car plant in China’s Xinjiang region are untrue, the German car manufacturer’s CEO in China told the BBC on Thursday.
Human rights organizations have accused Communist Party officials in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region of detaining one to three million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in detention camps built since at least 2017, citing eyewitness testimony, leaked documents, and satellite imagery. Testimonies by people who say they survived the camps include allegations of extensive human rights abuses including slave labor, physical and sexual abuse, and forced Communist Party indoctrination.
Mounting evidence of forced labor practices in Xinjiang factories associated with the detention facilities has led some major multinational brands, including Swedish clothing giant H&M in September, to cut ties with the region.
Volkswagen opened a factory in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, in 2013 where it currently employs 600 workers and produces up to 20,000 vehicles per year. The company’s CEO in China, Stephan Wollenstein, defended Volkswagen’s presence in Xinjiang to the BBC. Wollenstein did not indicate that Volkswagen had plans to cut ties to Xinjiang.
“[W]e are making sure that none of our production sites have forced labor, and this is something that we specifically checked in Urumqi and I can assure you, we do not have forced labor,” Wollenstein told the British broadcaster.
“Because opening a car plant in Xinjiang requires the partnership and approval of the Chinese authorities, the concern is that it risks lending tacit support to the policies of mass incarceration and ethnic repression, for which there is now compelling evidence,” the BBC noted.
Volkswagen manufactures 20 percent of all new cars in China, making the country’s market nearly indispensable for the German company. It currently operates 33 plants across China, including the Xinjiang branch. The Urumqi plant currently produces “less than ten percent of capacity of some of the company’s 32 other plants in China,” according to the report. Wollenstein told the BBC that Volkswagen would “love to do more” at that location in terms of production.
A Chinese report published in 2013 shortly after Volkswagen opened its plant in Urumqi suggested that the facility had established an agreement with a neighboring unit of a state paramilitary police force. The unit reportedly enforces state-mandated restrictions on Uyghurs’ movement within the tightly secured region.
“Shanghai Volkswagen (Xinjiang) Co., Ltd. signed a joint construction agreement with the sixth detachment of the Xinjiang Armed Police Corps, donating vehicles to the sixth detachment of the Xinjiang Armed Police Corps, and invited the sixth detachment to carry out military training and patriotic education for new employees of the company,” the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers revealed in its report.
“In the future, the two parties will continue to expand the areas and content of joint construction, and further deepen the affection of the police and the people,” the report added.
“We’ve been engaged in this country for 37 years,” Wollenstein told the BBC on Thursday. “And as much as we are to a certain extent dependent on China, probably China is also dependent on us.”
“We firmly believe in a global perspective and that free trade and doing business according to our ethical standards is helping every country where we’re engaged,” the Volkswagen CEO in China added.