Fresh allegations of complicity in human rights violations by Tesla, Volkswagen, BYD, Toyota and General Motors have been made by Human Rights Watch, which yesterday (1 February) released a report identifying Uyghur forced labour in these leading carmakers’ supply chains.

The NGO accused these auto giants of failing to prevent the exploitation of workers from the Uyghur ethnic minority at aluminium production sites in Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China which accounts for 9% of global supply.

Chinese government-backed labour transfer programmes are common in the region, forcing Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims into jobs as part of wider cultural and religious persecution.

“Car companies simply don’t know the extent of their links to forced labour in Xinjiang in their aluminium supply chains,” said Jim Wormington, senior researcher and advocate for corporate accountability at Human Rights Watch. “Consumers should know their cars might contain materials linked to forced labour or other abuses in Xinjiang.”

How have carmakers responded?

Human Rights Watch has called on these five carmakers to map their supply chains and disengage from any supplier found to source parts or materials from Xinjiang.

General Motors, Volkswagen, Tesla, BYD and Toyota all have extensive social responsibility commitments as part of their ESG strategies.

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By GlobalData

When the initial accusations surfaced, Volkswagen commissioned an audit of its Xinjiang site by German due diligence firm Loening Human Rights & Responsible Business GmbH.

Auditors said there were no signs of forced labour. However, Loening’s managing director Markus Loening added that “the situation in China and Xinjiang and the challenges in collecting data for audits are well known”.

While Volkswagen were the only of the five carmakers accused by Human Rights Watch to issue an audit in Xinjiang, the World Uyghur Congress has questioned its legitimacy.

“[In Xinjiang], a credible, independent audit is simply not possible”, said Gheyyur Kuerban, the Congress’ Berlin Director.

Beijing and SAIC, a state-run auto manufacturer and joint owner of Volkswagen’s Xinjiang site, denied any worker abuses.  

Volkswagen, meanwhile, has reiterated that it takes “a firm stand against forced labour in connection with its business activities worldwide – including in China”.

“We are already implementing processes to safeguard human rights, systematically identifying our risks and developing measures to prevent human rights violations,” a Volkswagen spokesperson told JustAuto. “Serious violations, such as forced labour, can lead to termination of the contract with the supplier if no remedial action is taken.”

General Motors also pointed to its prioritisation of “responsible sourcing practices”.

“GM remains committed to conducting due diligence and working collaboratively with industry partners, stakeholders, and organisations to continuously evaluate and address any potential violation in our supply chain,” a spokesperson told JustAuto. Toyota, Tesla and BYD did not respond when approached for comment.

Who are the Uyghurs?

The situation is complicated by the auto industry’s reliance on Chinese manufacturing.

In 2023, domestic and foreign manufacturers produced and exported more cars in China than any other nation.  

Low-cost manufacturing is in part driven by the Chinese government’s willingness to turn a blind eye – or actively exploit – cheap or forced labour.

The Uyghurs have long borne the brunt of this, and Beijing’s determination to stifle regional calls for independence.

As the largest minority ethnic group in Xinjiang, China’s largest province, the Uyghurs hold considerable sway over the region, which is disputed by the Uyghur nationalist movement, which seeks the creation of an autonomous region named Uyghuristan or East Turkestan.

The approximately 12 million Uyghurs living in Xinjiang speak their own language, which is similar to Turkish, and are mostly Muslim. Many in the group culturally and ethnically identify with Central Asian nations more than China.

Since 2017, the Chinese government has faced accusations of genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.

Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim communities regularly face forced labour, religious persecution, disappearances and arbitrary detention.

Human rights groups have said China’s government has imprisoned more than one million Uyghurs in an extensive network of so-called ‘re-education camps’.

Through an allegedly state-orchestrated mass migration of Han Chinese (China’s ethnic majority) into Xinjiang, Uyghurs and other minorities have sounded the alarm over cultural erasure.

As supply chain investigations develop, all eyes now turn to the auto industry’s response to alleged complicity in such persecution.