Car makers including Tesla, General Motors, Volkswagen and Toyota are failing to ensure they are not using forced labour as part of their China supply chains, Human Rights Watch says.
Some of the world’s largest car manufacturers are using aluminium produced with forced labour by Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China’s western Xinjiang region and other parts of the country, the US-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) has alleged.
China is accused of running labour transfer programmes in which Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities are forced to work in factories, as part of a longstanding campaign of assimilation and mass detention.
Workers in these programmes reportedly face ideological indoctrination and limited freedom of movement.
Human Rights Watch linked aluminium production to the labour transfer programmes by looking at company statements, Chinese government documents and its own previous research, as well as research by other NGOs.
A United Nations report in 2022 found China may have committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, where more than one million Uyghurs are estimated to have been detained. At the time, the Chinese government said the detentions were intended to target terrorism and separatism.
Since 2022, the US has required importers of any goods produced in Xinjiang to provide evidence they were not made with forced labour, in order to avoid penalties.
The Human Rights Watch report argues that, when it comes to aluminium from Xinjiang, its origins are difficult to track, especially when it is shipped to other parts of China and made into alloys.
An enormous industry
More than 15% of China’s aluminium supply and about 9% of the global supply originates in Xinjiang. The global automotive industry uses it for parts ranging from vehicle frames to wheels and battery foils.
Global demand for aluminium is projected to double between 2019 and 2050, due in part to the growing popularity of electric vehicles, according to the International Aluminium Institute, a UK-based industry group.
“China is a dominant player in the global car industry, and governments need to ensure that companies building cars or sourcing parts in China are not tainted by the government’s repression in Xinjiang,” said Jim Wormington, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Doing business in China should not mean having to use or benefit from forced labour.”
China became the world’s largest car exporter last year and is the biggest manufacturer of battery-powered electric cars. The companies listed in the new report also include Chinese electrical vehicle giant BYD.
How could forced labour be part of Western car makers’ business?
The Human Rights Watch report alleges that foreign car makers have buckled under the Chinese government’s pressure and allowed laxer control of their China operations than in other countries, which increases the risk of using forced labour in their supply chains.
Most foreign car makers in China operate as joint ventures with Chinese firms, due to government restrictions in key sectors.
Toyota later said in a statement it would closely review the Human Rights Watch report, saying regard for human rights was part of its core values.
“We expect our suppliers to follow our lead to respect and not infringe upon human rights,” it said.
Volkswagen said it had a risk management system in place for due diligence in procuring raw materials and it directly commissions its China suppliers. It added that the company immediately investigates any allegations of forced labour and is looking for new solutions to prevent it in its supply chains.
Volkswagen operates a plant in Xinjiang as part of a joint venture with Chinese state-owned carmaker SAIC Motor. An audit commissioned by the German car maker last year found no signs of forced labour at the Xinjiang plant.
General Motors, Tesla and BYD did not immediately respond to emailed questions about the allegations.
Tesla owns a factory in Shanghai where it builds cars for both the Chinese and international markets. The company told Human Rights Watch it had tracked its supply chain back to the mining level and had not found evidence of forced labour. However, it did not specify how much of its aluminium came from unknown sources and could be linked to Xinjiang.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has not yet replied to questions concerning the findings, the Associated Press reported.
Separately, the Xinjiang government has today brought in stricter rules governing religious expression, part of a campaign to Sinicize places and forms of worship of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs.
The rules tighten controls over religious schools, which must be government-sanctioned, and require that Muslims can only perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca as part of a group organised by the official Islamic Association of China. They essentially forbid receiving alms, or Zakat, from abroad, according to the human rights research firm Duihua.