U.S. remote-control maker Universal Electronics Inc. (UEI) told Reuters it struck a deal with authorities in Xinjiang to transport hundreds of Uyghur workers to its plant in the southern Chinese city of Qinzhou, the first confirmed instance of an American company participating in a transfer program described by some rights groups as forced labor.
The Nasdaq-listed UEI, which has sold its equipment and software to Sony, Samsung, LG, Microsoft and other tech and broadcast companies, has employed at least 400 Uyghur workers from the far-western region of Xinjiang as part of an ongoing worker-transfer agreement, according to the company and local officials in Qinzhou and Xinjiang, government notices and local state media.
Sony Group Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., LG Corp. and Microsoft Corp. each say they prohibit the use of forced labor in their supply chains and are taking steps to prevent it.
In at least one instance, Xinjiang authorities paid for a charter flight that delivered the Uyghur workers under police escort from Xinjiang's Hotan city – where the workers are from – to the UEI plant, according to officials in Qinzhou and Hotan interviewed by Reuters. The transfer is also described in a notice posted on an official Qinzhou police social media account in February 2020 at the time of the transfer.
Responding to Reuters' questions about the transfer, a UEI spokesperson said the company currently employs 365 Uyghur workers at the Qinzhou plant. It said it treated them the same as other workers in China and said it did not regard any of its employees as forced labor.
The UEI spokesperson said the company covers the cost of the transfer of workers to its Qinzhou plant from a local airport or train station in Guangxi, the region in which Qinzhou is located. She said the company does not know how the workers are trained in Xinjiang or who pays for their transport to Guangxi.
Reuters was unable to interview plant workers and therefore was not able to determine whether they are being compelled to work at UEI. The conditions they face, however, bear hallmarks of standard definitions of forced labor, such as working in isolation, under police guard and with restricted freedom of movement.
UEI's Uyghur workers are under surveillance by police during their transportation and life at the factory, where they eat and sleep in segregated quarters, according to details in Qinzhou government notices and local state media.
Programs like this have transferred thousands of Uyghur laborers to factories in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups, citing leaked Chinese government documents and testimony from detainees who say they were forced into such jobs, say the programs are coercive and part of China's overall plan to control the majority-Uyghur population in the region.
In response to Reuters' questions, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not address employment at UEI, but denied forced labor exists anywhere in the country.
"This so-called 'forced labor' is a completely fabricated lie," the ministry said in a statement. "Xinjiang migrant workers in other parts of China, like all workers, enjoy the right to employment in accordance with the law. The right to sign a labor contract, the right to labor remuneration, the right to rest and vacation, the right to labor safety and health protection, the right to obtain insurance and welfare rights and other legal rights."
Xinjiang authorities did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.S. Department of State, which has criticized China and several other governments for condoning forced labor, said the United States has found "credible reports of state-sponsored forced labor practices employed by the (Chinese) government in Xinjiang, as well as situations of forced labor involving members of these groups outside Xinjiang."
A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on UEI but said wittingly benefiting from forced labor in the United States was a crime under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The UEI spokesperson told Reuters the company does not conduct independent due diligence on where and how its workers are trained in Xinjiang. She said the arrangement is vetted by a third-party agent working with the Xinjiang government, who brokered the deal. She declined to identify that agent. Reuters could not determine if the agent is independent or works for the Xinjiang government.
'Vocational' internment camps
China has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs in a system of camps since 2017 as part of what it calls an anti-extremism campaign, according to estimates by researchers and United Nations experts. China describes internment camps in the region as vocational education and training centers and denies accusations of rights abuses.
Organized transfers of Uyghur laborers to other parts of China date back to the early 2000s, according to state media and government notices from the time. The program has expanded since about 2016, Xinjiang officials said in late July, around the time the mass internment program began.
Xinjiang officials told reporters at a Beijing media conference in late July that transfers of workers outside of Xinjiang are common and voluntary. "There are many labor-intensive industries that fit the skills of people in Xinjiang," said Xu Guixiang, a spokesperson for the provincial government. "They go where the market needs them."
UEI’s operation underscores the role played by agents in supplying companies with Uyghur workers.
The UEI spokesperson confirmed the company entered into an agreement with Xinjiang authorities in 2019 after being approached by the third-party agent. UEI said the same agent hires and pays the workers and that UEI does not sign individual contracts with the workers.
The spokesperson declined to disclose what the Uyghur workers are paid, beyond saying that they receive the same wages as others at the facility, which is "higher than Qinzhou local minimum wage."
The Economic Daily reported that workers sent in UEI's February 2020 transfer are expected to make around 3,000 yuan ($465) a month. That compares with the average manufacturing wage in the province of Guangxi of 3,719 yuan, according to China’s national bureau of statistics.
UEI's Uyghur employees are part of a much bigger system. Two separate labor agents hired by Hotan and Kashgar authorities in Xinjiang told Reuters they had each been set targets of placing as many as 20,000 Uyghurs annually with companies outside the region.
They, and one other agent, showed Reuters copies of three contracts for transfers already completed this year. These included a January contract to transport 1,000 workers to an auto parts factory in Xiaogan, Hubei province. The workers were required to undergo "political screening" prior to transfer.
The three agents told Reuters that separate dormitories, police escorts and payments overseen by third-party agents are routine elements in such transfers.
"Uyghur workers are the most convenient workers for companies," one of the agents told Reuters. "Everything is managed by the government."
The Uyghurs of UEI are kept under tight watch all along this labor supply chain.
"Get to work quickly and get rich through hard work using both hands," one manager employed by Xinjiang authorities told the gathered workers, according to an account published online by the Qinzhou Daily. Accompanying photos show the workers dressed in blue and red uniforms.
The mostly young Uyghur laborers at UEI’s plant sleep in separate dormitories and eat in a segregated canteen under the watch of managers assigned by Xinjiang authorities. Non-Uyghur laborers are not subject to such monitoring. The managers stay with the Uyghur workers throughout their employment, according to state media, local police notices and government officials who spoke to Reuters.
UEI said the canteens were established to provide local Uyghur food and said it allows Xinjiang workers to share dormitories "as they wish."
The Uyghurs must participate in what are described as "education activities" run by Qinzhou police and judicial authorities within the UEI facility, as part of the agreement between the U.S. firm and local authorities, according to notices on the government website of the Qinzhou district where UEI's factory is located.
Reuters could not determine what those activities involve.