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Chinese Uighurs worked in supply chains for dozens of companies, including Bombardier: report

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WATCH: (From November 2019) Leaked documents reveal China's surveillance of minority Uighurs

Uighur labour in China has been implicated in the supply chain of dozens of well-known companies, including Apple, Amazon and Bombardier, according to a new report by an Australian think tank.

The report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says that between 2017 and 2019, under a government policy called “Xinjiang Aid,” thousands of Uighurs were transferred out of the western region of Xinjiang to work in factories across China — “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour.”

Based on official Chinese documents, satellite imagery, and media reports, the report estimates 80,000 Uighurs were transferred to factories around China: “… some of them were sent directly from detention camps.”

READ MORE: Leaked Chinese documents raise questions about long-imprisoned Canadian

While the think tank says it couldn’t confirm all the transfers from Xinjiang are forced, it did find that cases where sufficient detail was available “showcase highly disturbing coercive labour practices
consistent with ILO definitions of forced labour.”

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At least 27 factories across nine provinces were identified in the report as using Uighur workers from Xinjiang since 2017.

“Those factories claim to be part of the supply chain of 83 well-known global brands,” the report says.

One of the companies named in the report is Canada-based transport sector multinational Bombardier

In an email statement to Global News, a spokesperson for Bombardier said the company is aware of the report.

READ MORE: Xinjiang government in China calls report into Uighur detention camps ‘fake news’

“We take these allegations seriously and we would like to remind everyone that all of our supplier contracts specifically preclude the use of forced labour,” the statement said, adding that the supplier identified in the report “specifically has signed all the required Code of Ethics.”

After the report was published this past weekend, Bombardier reached out to the supplier to “confirm again” their compliance with the company’s code of ethics.

“We are awaiting a confirmation,” the statement said, adding that Bombardier has a supplier code of conduct and has been a signatory of the United Nations Global Compact since 2017. 

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Other companies named in the report include Amazon and Apple. Global News reached out to both companies for comment and did not hear back as of Monday evening. 

In a statement to Reuters, Apple said it is “dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

The phone giant added it hasn’t seen the report but it works “closely with all our suppliers to ensure our high standards are upheld.”

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The transferred workers usually live in segregated quarters, undergoing “ideological training” when they’re not at work, the report says. They are “subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances,” with limited freedom of movement.

In recent years, the Chinese government has detained a million or more Uighurs and other minorities in mass detention camps in a wide effort by China to eradicate terrorism. The detentions have been roundly criticized by human rights groups and foreign governments.

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa did not respond to an emailed request for comment on the Australian think tank’s findings. But Reuters reported that the country’s foreign ministry has denied reports that the Chinese government has violated the rights of Uighurs.

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“This report is just following along with the U.S. anti-China forces that try to smear China’s anti-terrorism measures in Xinjiang,” spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a press briefing on Monday.

The think tank’s report notes that Chinese state media portrays the labour transfer programs as “voluntary,” but that workers who have managed to leave China “describe the constant fear of being sent back to a detention camp in Xinjiang or even a traditional prison while working at the factories.”

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Report researcher Nathan Ruser from ASPI said the team was able to cross-reference numerous claims by examining Chinese state media reports or social media posts.

The labour transfer policy is viewed positively in China, he said.

“Because these labour transfers occur as a part of that broader policy, in many cases the provincial governments, the companies themselves and friendly media organizations are happy to cover it,” Ruser said.

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Teen’s TikTok tutorial turns into a plea for Uighurs in China

“We got a lot of our sources from official reports or local media reporting or even what the companies were saying themselves in their blog or their social media pages.”

Reza Hasmath from the University of Alberta said re-education camps are “not a state secret.” 

“Re-education centres have been going on since the foundation of the party, since 1949,” he explained. 

“What’s different now is the scale and scope. They’ve always used re-education both in Xinjiang, in Tibet, across China.”

READ MORE: China denies allegations of forced labour after note found in Christmas card

The report’s work in tracing Chinese factories using Uighur labour back to big companies is one way to raise awareness.

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“One of the best ways to actually advocate is to twin an issue with a big multinational,” he said.

“The problem at hand is, I’m not quite sure if it’s only a Uighur problem or if it’s just a general issue insofar that they do use labour in this fashion,” he added. 

Even so, the report’s findings are “something that we should be alarmed by,” Hasmath said.

“But I’m not sure if it’s actually going to achieve its aims in terms of getting the companies to rethink their supply chain, irrespective of whether or not they are aware or not.”

— With files by Reuters, The Associated Press