An investigation made public Tuesday by a human rights group called the Tech Transparency Project accused Lens Technology, a major Apple supplier in China that also does business with Amazon and Tesla, of using forced labor from Uyghur Muslims the Chinese government herded into concentration camps.
The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) is a non-profit watchdog group that has challenged claims by Western tech companies like Apple that their supply chains are completely free of forced labor. On Tuesday, TTP showed documents to the Washington Post that demonstrated thousands of Uyghurs were sent to work for Lens Technology, one of the oldest suppliers for Apple, Inc.
Apple consistently claims it has “zero tolerance for forced labor” and conducts vigorous reviews to ensure no Uyghur labor is used in its products, and repeated that denial in response to the Washington Post report, but TTP said its documents prove there are indeed thousands of Uyghurs working at Lens Technology plants.
“Our research shows that Apple’s use of forced labor in its supply chain goes far beyond what the company has acknowledged,” TTP director Katie Paul told the Washington Post.
“Apple claims to take extraordinary measures to monitor its supply chain for such problems, but the evidence we found was openly available on the Internet,” she added.
The Washington Post anticipated the argument from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its apologists that workers from the Uyghur home province of Xinjiang could be voluntarily seeking gainful employment with Lens Technology and other manufacturers:
Uyghur workers transferred from Xinjiang to other regions of China are often, if not always, forced or coerced, according to human rights groups and academics who have conducted interviews with people who have escaped the system. The Chinese government does not permit human rights groups to enter the country to interview laborers or observe conditions. The documents unearthed by Tech Transparency Project don’t detail the working conditions in Lens Tech factories.
“There’s really no way to give informed consent in Xinjiang any longer because the threat of extrajudicial detention is so extreme,” said Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies Uyghur migrants. Byler said the Chinese government’s use of forced labor in the Xinjiang region has long been established, but has stepped up since 2017, when the most recent crackdown on Uyghurs began.
[…] Some Uyghur workers have told human rights groups that they were given a choice between taking a job in a far-flung factory or being sent to a detention center. In some cases, workers have said that when they “accept” the job, they live in heavily guarded campuses and are rarely allowed to leave. In the evenings, when their shifts end, the Uyghur workers say they are forced to take lessons in communist propaganda. Whether the Uyghurs are paid, and exactly how much, is unclear.
The Washington Post noted that Chinese state media has portrayed the Uyghurs sent to work for Lens Technology as voluntary workers, but “the text of the article uses language that human rights groups say reveals the workers might not be going by choice.” For example, Chinese officials are prone to gushing over the “paramilitary” style of management imposed on Uyghur workers by the “management cadres” — i.e. Communist Party political officers — who travel with them. Chinese propaganda portrays the Uyghurs and other ethnic groups as “lazy” and in need of close supervision to remain properly motivated.
Another clue to the true nature of Uyghur “employment” at Lens Technology is that Uyghur labor for the company was coordinated through something China calls the “Integrated Joint Operations Program,” a system described by human rights advocates as a surveillance network that helps Chinese authorities decide which Uyghurs belong in concentration camps. The implication is that Uyghur workers are keenly aware their alternative to working for certain Chinese companies, while keeping quiet about abusive practices, is getting sent back to the camps.
On Monday, Buzzfeed published a report offering copious evidence that Uyghurs don’t have to be shipped to other parts of China to engage in forced labor, because factories have been built right inside the concentration camps of Xinjiang province. At least 135 known detention facilities apparently have production lines inside their perimeters.
“Forced labor on a vast scale is almost certainly taking place inside facilities like these, according to researchers and interviews with former detainees,” Buzzfeed wrote, quoting several former camp inmates who said they were forced to work for “a pittance or no pay at all.”
As with the investigation by TTP and the Washington Post report on it, Buzzfeed’s sources said forced labor is so widespread in Xinjiang — and repression of complaints and investigations is so fierce — that “no company that manufactures there could conclude that its supply chain is free from it.” This, in turn, means that American consumers cannot be confident they are not unwittingly supporting forced labor when they buy goods wholly or partially created with Xinjiang labor.
The Center for Global Policy released a report in mid-December that argued the use of forced labor in Xinjiang province, especially for grueling tasks such as picking cotton, is occurring on a much larger scale than previously suspected. The report mentioned the same deceptive “coercive labor training and transfer scheme” described by TTP and Buzzfeed, and noted that even Uyghurs who have been released from the internment camps can be swept up in forced labor programs.