Global carmakers may be using aluminum made with Uyghur forced labor: report

Human Rights Watch says auto manufacturers must do better job of minimizing this possibility.
By Roseanne Gerin for RFA
2024.02.06
Global carmakers may be using aluminum made with Uyghur forced labor: report An attendee passes a model standing next to a car manufactured by China's BYD on display at the Shanghai Auto Show, April 18, 2023. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Major automakers including Toyota, General Motors, Tesla, BYD and Volkswagen may be using aluminum made by Ugyhur forced labor in China and have failed to minimize this possibility, Human Rights Watch said in a report.

Nearly 10% of the world’s aluminum is produced in Xinjiang, in China’s northwest, where Uyghurs and other minorities are subjected to forced labor in detention centers or through Chinese government-backed labor transfer programs that Beijing says are to alleviate poverty, according to the 99-page report, “Asleep at the Wheel: Car Companies’ Complicity in Forced Labor in China.”

Engine blocks, vehicle frames, wheels, lithium-ion battery foils and other components may contain aluminum from these facilities or joint-ventures that these major carmakers have with Chinese companies, said New York-based Human Rights Watch, or HRW. 

The rights group acknowledged that the origins of aluminum from Xinjiang are difficult to trace because the metal is sent to other parts of China, where it is melted down and made into alloys that enter global supply chains undetected.

“Aluminum from Xinjiang ends up being mixed in larger quantities of aluminum, where then you can no longer trace the origin, and that makes traceability extremely difficult,” said Adrian Zenz, director of China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington. He was not involved in producing the HRW report.

“What the report indicates is that carmakers need to really consider divesting from China a lot of their production and sourcing because the Chinese supply chains are inevitably tainted,” he said. “The report indicates that carmakers are not taking not even close to taking the steps that are necessary to reduce the exposure to Uyghur forced labor.” 

Caved in

HRW said despite the risk of exposure to forced labor through Xinjiang’s aluminum, some car manufacturers in China have given in to government pressure “to apply weaker human rights and responsible sourcing standards at their Chinese joint ventures than in their global operations.” 

“Most companies have done too little to map their supply chains for aluminum parts and identify and address potential links to Xinjiang,” The rights group said. “Confronted with an opaque aluminum industry and the threat of Chinese government reprisals for investigating links to Xinjiang, carmakers in many cases remain unaware of the extent of their exposure to forced labor.”

Toyota said in an email to Radio Free Asia that its “core value of respect for people permeates all that we do, including deep regard for human rights and how we conduct business as a global enterprise.” It said it expects its suppliers to follow its lead to respect human rights, and that it would closely review the HRW report.

GAC Toyota Motor Co., Ltd., based in Guangzhou, and FAW Toyota Motor Co., Ltd., based in Tianjin, are Toyota’s auto manufacturing joint ventures in China.

A SAIC Volkswagen plant is seen in the outskirts of Urumqi, capital of northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 22, 2021. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
A SAIC Volkswagen plant is seen in the outskirts of Urumqi, capital of northwestern China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 22, 2021. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

General Motors, which produced 2.1 million vehicles in China in 2023, told RFA that it  recognizes the importance of responsible sourcing practices, as outlined in its Supplier Code of Conduct

“GM remains committed to conducting due diligence and working collaboratively with industry partners, stakeholders and organizations to continuously evaluate and address any potential violation in our supply chain,” the statement said.

The U.S. carmaker has 10 joint ventures, two wholly-owned foreign enterprises and more than 58,000 employees in China. The joint ventures sell passenger and commercial vehicles under the Cadillac, Buick, Chevrolet, Wuling and Baojun brands.

Genocide

The United States and other Western countries have determined that China is committing genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples who live there. As a result, the United States, the European Union and other countries have enacted or are considering laws banning the import of products linked to forced labor.   

Because of the size of China’s domestic auto market and the need to compete, the five named carmakers have “succumbed to Chinese government pressure to apply weaker human rights and responsible sourcing standards at their Chinese joint ventures than in their global operations, increasing the risk of exposure to forced labor in Xinjiang,” the report said.

HRW mined open-source, online materials, including company reports, Chinese government documents, state-run media reports and social media posts to find links between Xinjiang, aluminum producers and labor transfers.

Rush hour traffic in Beijing’s central business district, June 13, 2023. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
Rush hour traffic in Beijing’s central business district, June 13, 2023. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

China, the world’s largest car exporter in 2023 and a manufacturing and supplier base for domestic and global car brands, produced and exported more cars than any other country in 2023 as well as made and exported billions of dollars of parts used by international carmakers.

Volkswagen, which has a 50% stake in a joint venture with Chinese carmaker SAIC and operates a distribution center in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, said in an email statement to RFA that it takes “its responsibility as a company in the area of human rights very seriously worldwide — including in China.”

“The Volkswagen Group adheres closely to the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” it said. “These are part of the company's Code of Conduct. Volkswagen takes a firm stand against forced labor in connection with its business activities worldwide.”

Seeks compliance

The automaker also said it works to ensure compliance with these values along the supply chain and has a careful global partner and supplier selection process and monitoring measures in place.

“Suppliers in the People's Republic of China that are commissioned directly by the Volkswagen Group are already in the scope of sustainable procurement measures and are committed to complying with our Code of Conduct for Business Partners,” the company said.

“Serious violations, such as forced labor, can lead to termination of the contract with the supplier if no remedial action is taken,” it said. “We are therefore actively reviewing and using our existing procedures and looking for new solutions to prevent forced labor in our supply chain.”

Electric cars recharge their batteries at Tesla charging stations in Beijing, Jan. 4, 2022. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
Electric cars recharge their batteries at Tesla charging stations in Beijing, Jan. 4, 2022. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Tesla, whose factory in Shanghai produces vehicles for the Chinese market and for export, told the rights group that it had mapped its aluminum supply chain in several cases but had not found evidence of forced labor. However, the company did not specify how much of the aluminum in its cars remains of unknown origin.

Unlike other foreign carmakers that operate in China, Tesla wholly owns its Gigafactory in Shanghai—the first such arrangement allowed by the Chinese government. The company has land-use rights for an initial term of 50  years.

Neither Tesla nor China’s BYD, headquartered in Shenzhen, replied to RFA’s requests for comment.

Companies involved in joint ventures have a responsibility under the U.N. Guiding Principles to use their leverage to address the risk of forced labor in the joint venture’s supply chain, HRW said.

The responses by the car manufacturers are “very inadequate,” said Maya Wang, the associate director in HRW’s Asia division.

“Because of the environment of political intimidation and harassment and surveillance, it’s really difficult to conduct due diligence because [if] you talk with the workers [about whether or not they are subjected to forced labor, could they possibly respond without fear?” Wang asked. 

“What we want to see are laws and regulations from governments like the EU, which currently has due diligence legislation to exactly deal with state-sponsored or state-organized forced labor,” she said.

With reporting from Jilil Kashgary for RFA Uyghur. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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