In a lively Muslim quarter of Nanchang city, a sprawling Chinese factory turns out computer screens, cameras and fingerprint scanners for a supplier to international tech giants such as Apple and Lenovo.
Yet, the mostly Muslim ethnic Uighurs who labour in the factory are isolated within a walled compound that is fortified with security cameras and guards at the entrance. Their forays out are limited to rare chaperoned trips, they are not allowed to worship or cover their heads, and they must attend special classes in the evenings, according to former and current workers and shopkeepers in the area.
The connection between OFILM, the supplier that owns the Nanchang factory, and the tech giants is the latest sign that companies outside China are benefiting from coercive labour practices imposed on the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group, and other minorities.
Over the past four years, the Chinese government has detained more than a million people from the far west Xinjiang region, most of them Uighurs, in internment camps and prisons where they go through forced ideological and behavioural re-education. China has long suspected the Uighurs of harbouring separatist tendencies because of their distinct culture, language and religion.
When detainees “graduate” from the camps, documents show, many are sent to work in factories. A dozen Uighurs and Kazakhs told the AP they knew people who were sent by the state to work in factories in China’s east, known as inner China. Most were sent by force, although in some cases it wasn’t clear if they consented.
Workers are often enrolled in classes where state-sponsored teachers give lessons in Mandarin, China’s dominant language, or politics and “ethnic unity.” Conditions in the jobs vary in terms of pay and restrictions.
At the OFILM factory, Uighurs are paid the same as other workers but treated differently, according to residents of the neighbourhood. They are not allowed to leave or pray, unlike the Hui Muslim migrants also employed, who are considered less of a threat by the Chinese government.
The Chinese government says the labour program is a way to train Uighurs and other minorities. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs called concern over possible coerced labour under the program “groundless” and “slander.”
However, experts say that the program is part of a broader assault on the Uighur culture, breaking up social and family links by sending people far from their homes to be assimilated into the dominant Han Chinese culture.
“They think these people are poorly educated, isolated, backwards, can’t speak Mandarin,” said James Leibold, a scholar of Chinese ethnic policy at La Trobe University in Melbourne.
“So what do you do? You ‘educate’ them, you find ways to transform them in your own image. Bringing them into the Han Chinese heartland is a way to turbocharge this transformation.”
OFILM’s website indicates the Xinjiang workers make screens, camera cover lenses and fingerprint scanners. It touts customers including Apple, Samsung, Lenovo, Dell, HP, LG and Huawei, although AP was unable to track specific products to specific companies.
Apple’s most recent list of suppliers, published last year, includes three OFILM factories in Nanchang. It’s unclear whether the specific OFILM factory the AP visited twice in Nanchang supplies Apple, but it has the same address as one listed. Apple did not answer requests for clarification on which factory it uses.
In an email, Apple said its code of conduct requires suppliers to “provide channels that encourage employees to voice concerns.” It said it interviews the employees of suppliers during annual assessments in their local language without their managers present, and had done 44,000 interviews in 2018.
Lenovo confirmed that it sources screens, cameras, and fingerprint scanners from OFILM but said it was not aware of the allegations and would investigate. Lenovo also pointed to a 2018 audit by the Reliable Business Alliance in which OFILM scored very well.
All the companies that responded said they required suppliers to follow strict labour standards. LG and Dell said they had no evidence of forced labour in their supply chains but would investigate, as did Huawei. HP did not respond.
OFILM also supplies PAR Technology, an American sales systems vendor to which it most recently shipped 48 cartons of touch screens in February, according to U.S. customs data obtained through ImportGenius and Panjiva, which track shipping data.
PAR Technology in turn says it supplies terminals to major chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Subway. However, the AP was unable to confirm that products from OFILM end up with the fast food companies.
McDonald’s said it has asked PAR Technology to discontinue purchases from OFILM while it launches an immediate investigation. PAR Technology also said it would investigate immediately. Subway and Taco Bell did not respond.
The AP reported a year ago that Uighur forced labour was being used within Xinjiang to make sportswear that ended up in the U.S.
Beijing first sent Uighurs to work in inland China in the early 2000s, as part of a broad effort to push minorities to adopt urban lifestyles and integrate with the Han Chinese majority to tighten political control.
The program was halted in 2009, when at least two Uighurs died in a brawl with Han workers at a toy factory in coastal Guangdong province. After peaceful protests in Xinjiang were met with police fire, ethnic riots broke out that killed an estimated 200 people, mostly Han Chinese civilians.
An AP review of Chinese academic papers and state media reports shows that officials blamed the failure of the labour program on the Uighurs’ language and culture. When the government ramped up the program after the ascent of hardline Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2012, it emphasized ideological transformation.
A paper drafted by the head of the Xinjiang statistics bureau in 2014 said the Uighurs’ poor Mandarin made it hard for them to integrate in inner China. It concluded that Xinjiang’s rural minorities needed to be broken away from traditional lifestyles and systematically “disciplined”, “trained” and “instilled with modern values.”
The paper also described government incentives such as tax breaks and subsidies for Chinese companies to take Uighurs. A 2014 draft contract for Xinjiang labourers in Guangdong province obtained by the AP shows the government there offered companies 3000 RMB (US$428.52M) per worker, with an additional 1000 RMB (US$142.84M) for “training” each person for no less than 60 class hours. In exchange, companies had to offer “concentrated accommodation areas,” halal canteens and “ethnic unity education and training.”
It was a tough sell at a time when Chinese officials were grappling with knifings, bombings and car attacks by Uighurs, fuelled by explosive anger at the government’s harsh security measures and religious restrictions. Hundreds died in race-related violence in Xinjiang.
The size of the program is considerable. A November 2017 state media report said Hotan prefecture alone planned to send 20,000 people over two years to work in inner China.
The Uighurs at OFLIM were sent there as part of the government’s labour program, in an arrangement the company’s website calls a “school-enterprise co-operative.” OFILM describes the workers as migrants organized by the government or vocational school students on “internships.”
OFILM confirmed it received AP requests for comment but did not reply.