The Senate Finance Committee is investigating U.S. and foreign auto manufacturers and suppliers for potential links to forced labor practices in China’s Xinjiang region, where Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are allegedly being coerced into working in factories.
The investigation is taking place amid a broader U.S. crackdown on goods originating from the northwestern Chinese region. Under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that Congress passed last year, goods made in Xinjiang cannot be imported to the United States unless importers prove that they are not made using forced labor.
The automotive supply chain came under increased scrutiny in December, when the U.K.-based Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice issued a report that found links between Chinese companies operating in Xinjiang and automakers that import parts from them.
Senator Ron Wyden, chairman of the chamber's Finance Committee, wrote to automakers and suppliers last week, telling them that the early stages of the investigation showed that automakers are heavily dependent on their direct suppliers to ensure that their supply chains are free from forced labor.
He said investigators have serious questions about whether the companies are even able to ensure their sub-suppliers in China do not rely on forced labor, partly because of the complexity of the supply chain. But he said that is no excuse.
"This complexity cannot cause the United States to compromise its fundamental commitment to upholding human rights and U.S. law," Wyden wrote.
Letters asking how Chinese supply chains are overseen went to companies including Ford, Honda, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Tesla and Volkswagen, as well as numerous major auto supply companies. The companies have until April 11 to reply, but American Honda Motor Co. Inc and Volkswagen Group of America both responded to VOA’s inquiries, as did four other auto suppliers.
Willing to address issues
The companies that responded said they are committed to adhering to U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and ensuring that their products are not produced with forced labor. They also emphasized their willingness to work with policymakers to address these issues.
Katie Deel, a spokesperson at Volkswagen Group of America, emphasized the company's "zero tolerance" policy for forced and child labor in its business.
"The company takes its responsibility for human rights very seriously in all regions of the world, including China, adhering closely to the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights," Deel told VOA.
Chris Abbruzzese, spokesperson at Honda, stated that the company expects its suppliers to follow its global Supplier Sustainability Guidelines, which include the requirements with respect to labor. "As with other inquiries from Capitol Hill, Honda will work with policymakers on these important issues," Abbruzzese said.
Alissa Cleland, a spokesperson for auto supplier Robert Bosch GmbH, confirmed the company had been contacted by the committee but said it does not manufacture or acquire materials from direct suppliers in Xinjiang.
"Bosch is committed to ensuring that its products are not produced wholly or in part by forced labor," Cleland said. "In our ‘Basic principles of social responsibility at Bosch,’ Bosch affirms these commitments and specifically rejects forced labor of any kind."
Spokespersons for auto suppliers DENSO Corporation, Stellantis N.V., ZF Friedrichshafen AG and Continental North America all said they took the issue of forced labor seriously and would respond to the Senate committee’s request.
Beijing officially denies allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang and says its labor programs are poverty alleviation measures aimed at helping ethnic minorities.
Washington says China is committing acts of genocide against the Uyghur people, including forced sterilization of women, forced labor, torture, and the arbitrary detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs and other religious minorities in state-run internment camps and prisons.
The Chinese government also has been accused of forcing individuals to participate in government-sponsored labor programs, where they are not afforded the freedom to choose whether to work.
When asked about the claims, a spokesperson for China’s embassy in Washington said the accusations were false and questioned the motives of those making them.
"The claims of 'forced labor' and 'forced sterilization' by the Chinese government in Xinjiang are a smear on China's ethnic policies and on Xinjiang's achievements in development," wrote Liu Pengyu in an email to VOA.
"The attempt by some anti-China forces and organizations to politicize human rights issues under the pretext of Xinjiang-related issues goes against people's shared aspiration. The attempt to contain China under the pretext of Xinjiang-related issues is doomed to fail."