Free Uyghurs from Forced Labor in China

ILRF denounces rising prejudice against Chinese people, particularly in the U.S., linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, reports of the persecution and forced labor of Uyghurs and other marginalized groups in China during the COVID-19 pandemic have increased.

“If the government tells you to work, you go.” — Uyghur laborer, Aksu, XUAR.

People belonging to ethnic, cultural, and religious groups in northwestern China, including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Hui, are currently the target of the largest organized detention of an ethno-religious minority the world has seen since World War II. Since 2017, over one million have been detained.

Detainees are made to work under constant surveillance, with assigned minders and no freedom to leave. Their forced labor contributes to the production of goods for numerous multinationals.

The native people of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), Northwest China, are largely from Turkic ethnic groups. Ethnically and culturally distinct from China’s majority Han population, most Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Hui are Muslim, and their languages—with the exception of the Hui—are unrelated to Mandarin and Cantonese. They have long been persecuted for their ethnicity by the government, which has repressed their language, religion, and culture along with settling millions of Han Chinese in XUAR.  Racial discrimination against Muslims is commonplace.

In recent years, however, the government’s efforts to oppress and forcibly assimilate people from Turkic and Muslim-majority ethnic groups, like Uyghurs, have expanded dramatically.

Survivor accounts, leaked official documents, and satellite imagery confirm that the Chinese government is subjecting hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui, and other Turkic and Muslim people to systematic forced labor in detention camps, prisons, and factories. Forced loyalty to the Communist party, renunciation of Islam, constant surveillance, and torture are among the other horrifying conditions that they face. Experts argue that forced labor is now so widespread in XUAR that all goods produced there should be considered tainted. 

This year, reports revealed that the forced labor of Uyghurs has been expanded beyond XUAR, with at least 80,000 Uyghurs transferred to factories across China where they cannot leave, are constantly surveilled, and must undergo “ideological training” to abandon their religion and culture. 

Recent video evidence shows that some of these transfers occurred earlier this year, when much of China was under lockdown as a result of the expanding COVID-19 outbreak. This means these laborers were forced to work and exposed to the virus while much of the country’s population sheltered at home.

Few detainees are charged with any crime but rather are targeted simply for practicing their Muslim faith. 9 The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination states that Muslim minorities are now “treated as enemies of the State based on nothing more than their ethno-religious identity.”10 Analysts have argued that the Chinese government’s use of forced labor as part of an effort to forcibly assimilate an ethnic group and eliminate a culture and religion sets it apart from more common forms of forced labor and could make the government guilty of crimes against humanity.11 Some have even described the government’s actions as cultural genocide. 

The forced labor of Uyghurs and other people from Turkic or mainly Muslim ethnic groups has become a significant part of the Chinese economy. A complex system of buying and selling their labor has developed, with many brokers and local officials advertising “government sponsored workers” online.

Countless Western companies are also profiting from this system of forced labor in their supply chains. Over 20 percent of the global apparel’s cotton supply is grown in XUAR, with 84 percent of China’s supply grown in the province. Recent reports implicate at least 83 companies, in numerous different industries, in profiting from the forced labor.

  • The Huafu Fashion Co. mill in Aksu, XUAR, claims to make yarn that eventually finds its way into clothes for Western fast fashion brands More than 4,000 Uyghurs work there in isolation and under strict “military-style management,” as stated by the local human resources bureau.
  • The Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co. Ltd. in Laixi City, Shandong is one of the world’s largest manufacturers for a major sneaker company. As of 2020, around 600 Uyghur people worked in the factory. These workers did not come by choice, are forbidden from leaving, and cannot practice their religion. Photographs of the factory show watchtowers, razor wire, and inward-facing barbed wire fences.  
  • O-Film Technology Co. Ltd. in Nanchang, Jiangxi, produces cameras and touchscreens for electronics companies, including smartphone “selfie” cameras. Over a thousand Uyghurs were transferred there in 2017, where they were assigned minders and expected to “gradually alter their ideology.”

The Chinese government has defended the camps as voluntary “vocational training centers” that serve to provide professional opportunities and eliminate extremism.18 But the stories above are just some among the mounting evidence that reveal this system of modern slavery for what it is.

We have the power to push for change. Although the Chinese government continues to deny any wrongdoing, we can draw attention to the issue and put pressure on them to end the use of forced labor. Western governments and corporations must end their involvement in implicated factories. By making it neither economically nor politically advantageous for the Chinese government to continue its current treatment of these people, we can make a difference.

There is a growing movement calling for these changes, and now we have ample evidence to argue for it. Some officials in the U.S. government and around the world have already started calling for laws banning imports from XUAR. Some companies have cut ties with their factories in XUAR, while others have pledged to investigate their supply chains. Let’s take advantage of this momentum and use our voice as civil society to cement real change.

Urge the Chinese government to end the persecution and exploitation of Uyghurs and other marginalized groups through the use of forced labor.

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