Red Flags for Forced Labor Found in China’s Car Battery Supply ChainJune 20, 2022
The photograph on the mining conglomerate’s social media account showed 70 ethnic Uyghur workers standing at attention under the flag of the People’s Republic of China. It was March 2020 and the recruits would soon undergo training in management, etiquette and “loving the party and the country,” their new employer, the Xinjiang Nonferrous Metal Industry Group, announced.
But this was no ordinary worker orientation. It was the kind of program that human rights groups and U.S. officials consider a red flag for forced labor in China’s western Xinjiang region, where the Communist authorities have detained or imprisoned more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other largely Muslim minorities.
The Chinese government denies the presence of forced labor in Xinjiang, calling it “the lie of the century.” But it acknowledges running what it describes as a work transfer program that sends Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities from the region’s more rural south to jobs in its more industrialized north.
Xinjiang Nonferrous and its subsidiaries have partnered with the Chinese authorities to take in hundreds of such workers in recent years, according to articles displayed proudly in Chinese on the company’s social media account. These workers were eventually sent to work in the conglomerate’s mines, a smelter and factories that produce some of the most highly sought minerals on earth, including lithium, nickel, manganese, beryllium, copper and gold.
Xinjiang Nonferrous’s role in work transfer programs ramped up several years ago, as part of efforts by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping to drastically transform Uyghur society to become richer, more secular and loyal to the Communist Party. In 2017, the Xinjiang government announced plans to transfer 100,000 people from southern Xinjiang into new jobs over three years. Dozens of state-owned companies, including Xinjiang Nonferrous, were assigned to absorb 10,000 of those laborers in return for subsidies and bonuses.
Transferred workers appear to make up only a minor part of the labor force at Xinjiang Nonferrous, perhaps a few hundred of its more than 7,000 employees. The company and its subsidiaries reported recruiting 644 workers from two rural counties of southern Xinjiang from 2017 to 2020, and training more since then.
Before being assigned to work, predominantly Muslim minorities were given lectures on “eradicating religious extremism” and becoming obedient, law-abiding workers who “embraced their Chinese nationhood,” Xinjiang Nonferrous said.
Inductees for one company unit underwent six months of training including military-style drills and ideological training. They were encouraged to speak out against religious extremism, oppose “two-faced individuals” — a term for those who privately oppose Chinese government policies — and write a letter to their hometown elders expressing gratitude to the Communist Party and the company, according to the company’s social media account. Trainees faced strict assessments, with “morality” and rule compliance accounting for half of their score. Those who scored well earned better pay, while students and teachers who violated rules were punished or fined.
Even as it promotes the successes of the programs, the company’s propaganda hints at the government pressure on it to meet labor transfer goals, even through the coronavirus pandemic.
A 2017 article in the Xinjiang Daily quoted one 33-year-old villager as saying that he was initially “reluctant to go out to work” and “quite satisfied” with his income from farming, but was persuaded to go to work at Xinjiang Nonferrous’ subsidiary after party members visited his house several times to “work on his thinking.” And in a visit in 2018 to Keriya County, Zhang Guohua, the company president, told officials to “work on the thinking” of families of transferred laborers to ensure that no one abandoned their jobs.
Chinese authorities say that all employment is voluntary, and that work transfers help free rural families from poverty by giving them steady wages, skills and Chinese-language training.
“No one has been forced to become ‘transferred labor’ in Xinjiang,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing this month.
It is difficult to ascertain the level of coercion any individual worker has faced given the limited access to Xinjiang for journalists and research firms. Laura T. Murphy, a professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University in Britain, said that resisting such programs is seen as a sign of extremist activity and carries a risk of being sent to an internment camp.
“A Uyghur person cannot say no to this,” she said. “They are harassed or, in the government’s words, educated,’ until they are forced to go.”