Toxic Tiles: How Vinyl Flooring Made With Uyghur Forced Labor Ends Up at Big Box StoresJune 14, 2022
Vinyl flooring is seeing a surge of growth, boosted in part by pandemic-era renovations. The industry calls it “luxury vinyl tile.” In reality, it is layer upon layer of thin plastic, a heavily polluting concoction made with fossil fuels. Very often, a new report shows, that plastic is produced using forced labor.
The story of vinyl flooring begins 6,600 miles away in the Xinjiang region of northwestern China, where it is intertwined with the persecution of the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs. The same month that Merth wrote her 2020 blog post, in a village in southern Xinjiang, 30-year-old Abdurahman Matturdi was herded onto a bus emblazoned with the words “Zhongtai Chemical.” That’s short for Xinjiang Zhongtai Chemical Company, a Chinese government-owned petrochemical firm that is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a type of plastic that is a critical ingredient in vinyl flooring. The World Health Organization had just declared Covid-19 a pandemic, and factories across China were shutting down to protect workers and prevent the coronavirus’s spread, but Zhongtai’s PVC plants were humming. Matturdi, whose story is detailed in a post on the company’s WeChat account, left behind his wife, newborn baby, and ailing mother. Hours later, he arrived in the regional capital of Ürümqi, where people in his group were assigned dormitory beds and given military fatigues to wear. Instead of watching his baby learn to walk or caring for his mother, he would spend his days laboring in Zhongtai’s facilities, exposed to both toxic chemicals and a frightening new virus.
Merth and Matturdi are connected by a troubling supply chain. At one end is Zhongtai, a mammoth state-owned enterprise with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party that is among the top users of forced labor in Xinjiang. By its own account, Zhongtai has brought in more than 5,500 Uyghurs like Matturdi to work at its factories under a government program that human rights advocates say amounts to a grave injustice. To make the plastic resins that go into the flooring under Americans’ feet, Zhongtai belches greenhouse gases and mercury into the air. Its executives uproot lives, tear families apart, and expose workers to coal dust and vinyl chloride monomer, which has been linked to liver tumors.
The new report, by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice in England and at the Maine-based toxic chemical investigative outfit Material Research, details the toll taken by the flooring industry, painting a devastating picture of oppression and pollution in the Uyghur region, all to help consumers in the United States and other wealthy countries cheaply renovate their homes. The report calls on the industry “to identify its risk and extract themselves from complicity in Uyghur forced labor.” It also asks all companies that source from China — including Home Depot — to scrutinize their supply chains.
PVC production occurs in countries around the world, including the U.S., and creates pollution wherever it happens. But in Xinjiang, the process uses mercury, which has been phased out of PVC production in the U.S., and generates more waste than in many other parts of the world, the report notes. Uyghur workers living in dormitories near the plants bear the costs. “In those conditions, at that scale, where the state is in control of production and there’s no accounting for the impacts, it’s almost unimaginable what’s happening,” said Jim Vallette of Material Research, one of the report’s authors. “There’s nothing like it on Earth in the combination of climate and toxic pollution. And workers are living there 24/7.”
In 2017, Zhongtai began bringing in Uyghurs to work at its factories. Many of these laborers were, like Matturdi, from poor villages in southern Xinjiang. Their journeys start when Zhongtai representatives show up at their door. “Companies like Zhongtai recruit workers through state-sponsored programs, and people are not allowed to refuse,” said Murphy, the forced labor scholar. In one instance reported by Chinese state news agency Xinhua, Zhongtai representatives repeatedly visited the home of a young woman named Maynur on the edge of Xinjiang’s Taklamakan Desert. Her parents balked at the thought of her leaving, but their protests were ultimately ignored. Before long, Maynur was operating packaging machines at a Zhongtai PVC factory.
Zhongtai’s executives are active participants in broader government repression in the Uyghur region, according to the report. In 2017, the company held an event devoted to “social stability” in which representatives encouraged Uyghurs to bring their thinking in line with that of the Communist Party. Zhongtai’s employees have helped the Chinese government surveil Uyghur villagers by collecting their personal details and entering them into a widely criticized policing app, according to a WeChat post by a local propaganda department. And Zhongtai executives often publicize their participation in the labor transfer program, allowing state news reporters to film Uyghurs as they arrive by bus or join in military drills. Such workers have reason to fear anyone affiliated with the company, which, as a state-owned enterprise, implicitly represents the Chinese government. When Uyghurs arrive at Zhongtai’s facilities, the company’s corporate communications show, Communist Party officials are often there to receive them.
After undergoing training at Zhongtai, Uyghurs are put to work feeding furnaces, mixing and crushing materials for PVC production, and handling caustic soda, a byproduct of the production process. They face respiratory hazards from coal and PVC dust in the air, neurological effects from mercury, and carcinogens from coal reacting with chlorine.
Forced study is another part of the program, both at Zhongtai and at other plants in the region that use Uyghur labor. Elimä collected state press news clips about Zhongtai that show Uyghurs in military garb, studying Chinese. Some talk woodenly about how happy they are, as if reading from a script. “Thanks to the Party and Zhongtai for giving us this good opportunity!” says one.
“Zhongtai sees it as a corporate success because they’ve managed to turn Uyghurs away from being farmers, away from their homogenous culture, away from their Islamic piety and toward a culture that is more industrialized, urbanized, and ideologically appropriate in the government’s view,” said Murphy.
State media reports claim that the workers are paid enough that they can send money home to their families. According to Xinhua, Maynur earned 4,000 yuan a month, equivalent to around $580 at the time of the article. But the Xinjiang Victims Database, an independent project that compiles accounts from victims of persecution in the region, has collected many stories from former Uyghur laborers and their relatives who paint a very different picture of working conditions in the region. “First-person testimony tells us that people are typically not paid or are even in debt to the companies they work for,” said Murphy. Companies often deduct money for food and housing — or they promise to pay salaries and don’t deliver. The article featuring Matturdi’s case says that each worker in his group had 1,000 yuan ($145 at the time) of their first monthly paycheck applied toward meals.
The workers suffered anew as a novel coronavirus spread through the world in 2020. Over a two-week period in March, as factories in other parts of China remained closed, Zhongtai boasted that it had brought in over 1,000 Uyghurs from poor villages to work on its assembly lines. Some, like Matturdi, were bused in. Others arrived by train, flooding into halls where it was impossible to maintain social distance, wearing only surgical masks for protection from the virus.