A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers is seeking answers from Arizona-based Universal Electronics Inc. (UEI) about its alleged role in using Uyghurs as forced laborers in China.
Earlier this month, the Nasdaq-listed company, which produces and sells equipment and software to tech companies worldwide, acknowledged to Reuters that it had employed 365 Uyghur workers from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China at its Qinzhou plant in China's southern province of Guangxi as part of an ongoing worker-transfer agreement.
A company spokesperson subsequently told VOA in an email that it ended the arrangement last week and severed ties with the Chinese agency that provided the workers.
On Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez and Senators Marco Rubio and Jeff Merkley signed a letter addressed to UEI CEO Paul Arling, demanding answers about the company's alleged involvement in the Chinese government's use of Uyghur forced labor.
"This arrangement [employment of Uyghur workers from Xinjiang] bears clear signs of forced labor, raising concerns that your firm may be directly implicated in the Chinese government's genocide in Xinjiang," the letter said. "Chinese government authorities have long used forced labor to subjugate the Uyghur population."
Rights organizations such as Amnesty International accuse China of crimes against humanity toward Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, while countries such as the U.S. accuse China of genocide against the Uyghurs and allege that the country has arbitrarily detained more than 1 million Uyghurs in internment camps.
Beijing denies those allegations and says that those facilities are not internment camps but "vocational training centers" where people learn new skills.
The senators' letter quoted from the State Department's 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report: "In Xinjiang, the government is the trafficker. Authorities use threats of physical violence, forcible drug intake, physical and sexual abuse, and torture to force detainees to work in adjacent or off-site factories or worksites," including consumer electronics factories.
In the letter, the senators called on American companies to "scrupulously" avoid forced Uyghur labor in their Chinese operations, including carefully vetting arrangements with third-party labor agents.
"The new reports indicate Universal Electronics may be failing in this duty," the letter said. "We understand that the Uyghurs employed in your Qinzhou facility live in segregated dormitories, are continuously surveilled by police, and are made to participate in government 'education activities.' "
Senators gave the CEO of UEI a deadline of November 5 by which to provide details about the 2019 agreement with the Xinjiang government regarding Uyghur laborers.
The committee also requested additional information such as the number of Uyghur laborers it employs in China; evidence substantiating the company's assertion that "none of our workers at our facilities, including any of our China-based factories, are forced"; details of employee training programs related to forced labor and human trafficking; examples of the daily reports UEI agreed to provide to the Qinzhou police concerning Uyghur workers; and the content of any disclosures to shareholders or other stakeholders about the company's use of transferred Uyghur laborers.
A spokesperson for UEI told VOA in an email that the company looked forward to working with Chairman Menendez, ranking member Rubio, and Senator Merkley on the questions they raised in the letter.
"UEI made the decision last week to end its relationship with the staffing agency that hired these workers based on feedback on how to best secure its supply chain and in light of ongoing regulatory and legislative changes globally," a UEI spokesperson told VOA.