A recent investigation has revealed that some Chinese companies are using Uighur labor to manufacture personal protective equipment for Covid-19 under a contentious government-sponsored program that experts say often puts people to work against their will.
Uighurs are a largely Muslim ethnic minority from the Xinjiang region of northwest China. The program sends Uighurs and other ethnic minorities into factory and service jobs, and their labor is part of the P.P.E. supply chain.
According to China’s National Medical Products Administration, only four companies in Xinjiang produced medical grade protective equipment before the pandemic. As of June 30, that number was 51. State media reports and public records show that at least 17 of those companies participate in the labor transfer program.
The companies produce equipment primarily for domestic use, but there are several other companies outside Xinjiang that use Uighur labor and export globally. The investigation traced a shipment of face masks to a medical supply company in the U.S. state of Georgia from a factory in China’s Hubei Province, where more than 100 Uighur workers had been sent.
The workers are required to learn Mandarin and pledge their loyalty to China at weekly flag-raising ceremonies.
The Human Rights Investigations Lab at the University of California, Berkeley and the Uyghur Human Rights Project have both collected dozens of videos and social media reports that document the recent labor transfers.
Uighurs have long been persecuted by the Chinese government, which says its tight control over Xinjiang is necessary to fight what it calls religious extremism.
Quotas on the number of workers put into the labor program and the penalties faced by those who refuse to cooperate, however, mean that participation is often, in effect, involuntary.
“There are these coercive quotas that cause people to be put into factory work when they don’t want to be,” said Amy K. Lehr, the director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And that could be considered forced labor under international law.”