Another Study Finds Automakers are “Asleep at the Wheel” When It Comes to Forced Uyghur Labor

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Feb 01 2024 |
Workers in an automobile factory in Beijing. Getty Images

The 99-page report from Human Rights Watch concludes many car companies “have succumbed to Chinese government pressure to apply weaker human rights and responsible sourcing standards at their Chinese joint ventures.”

The evidence continues to mount that global automakers including General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota, Tesla, and BYD remain tied to forced Uyghur labor.

A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled “Asleep at the Wheel: Car Companies’ Complicity in Forced Labor in China,” examines the use of aluminum made in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government is overseeing a genocide against the Uyghur people, an ethnic minority group from the region. The Chinese government has placed at least 100,000 Uyghurs into forced labor throughout Xinjiang and other parts of China, a problem so vast that the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) was put into place to ban any products made in whole or part in Xinjiang from entering the United States.

But far more needs to be done to enforce the UFLPA, as too many products made with forced labor continue to enter the United States. That includes the automobile industry, and the HRW report showcases just how prevalent forced Uyghur labor remains in the global auto supply chain, specifically focusing on how automakers continue to source aluminum from Xinjiang despite mounting evidence of the human rights abuses taking place there:

Despite the risk of exposure to forced labor through Xinjiang’s aluminum, some car manufacturers in China have succumbed 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. 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. Consumers should as a result have little confidence that they are purchasing and driving vehicles free from links to abuses in Xinjiang.

HRW isn’t the first organization to draw attention to the auto industry’s use of forced Uyghur labor. Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice put out a report in December 2022 that focused on the issue, noting that “if you have bought a car in the last five years, some of its parts were likely made by Uyghurs and others forced to work in China.” Horizon Advisory, meanwhile, has detailed the use of forced labor in China’s aluminum industry.

China’s growing dominance of the global auto industry is one of the reasons forced labor remains so prevalent throughout the supply chain. As HRW explains in its report, China produced and exported more cars than any other country in 2023, and “Chinese companies also produce and export billions of dollars of parts used by global carmakers, from electric vehicle batteries to alloy wheels.” Aluminum likely tainted with forced Uyghur labor is almost certainly in a lot of those parts, “from engine blocks and vehicle frames to wheels and battery foils.”

The risk of exposure to the tainted Xinjiang aluminum is “highest for carmakers’ manufacturing operations in China, including global carmakers’ China-based factories and joint ventures,” HRW notes. But Chinese companies also make and export “aluminum-heavy parts like alloy wheels and the foil, casings, and trays used for electric vehicle batteries,” so auto companies outside of China run the risk of sourcing the tainted aluminum by purchasing parts from China.

HRW wrote to several automakers in July 2023 to find out how these companies were working to clean up their aluminum supply chains. Companies included General Motors (GM), Toyota, and Volkswagen — all of whom have joint ventures in China — alongside Tesla and BYD, who operate factories there. Volkswagen met with HRW officials, while General Motors and Tesla provided written responses. Toyota and BYD failed to respond.

Both Volkswagen and GM argued that “they have limited control over their joint ventures’ operations and supply chains,” while Tesla said it had intensified supply chain mapping for aluminum, “driven in part by global trade regulations to combat forced labor,” although it did not “specify how much of the aluminum in its cars remains of unknown origin and so could be linked to Xinjiang.”

The threat of retaliation from Beijing is likely one reason why automakers are so reluctant to do anything about their supply chains, HRW argues:

Car industry staff and responsible sourcing experts, who wished to remain anonymous, told Human Rights Watch that the threat of Chinese government retaliation deterred companies from talking to their China-based suppliers and joint ventures about their potential links to forced labor in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has initiated criminal investigations targeting companies or individuals that assist businesses to investigate their potential links to human rights abuses in China, including forced labor in Xinjiang. The government in April 2023 also passed an expanded counter-espionage law that experts have warned could increase the government’s power to investigate and prosecute foreign firms conducting research on local markets and business partners.

The power that China’s government holds over these automakers is proof that far more work needs to be done to ensure that the United States is not reliant on China for the things we need — and that includes the American auto industry, which maintains an outsized importance for both our economy and national security.

Stronger enforcement of the UFLPA is a good first step. Nothing made with forced labor in Xinjiang — where it be an automobile or an engine block or a part for a battery — should be making its way into the United States, period.

Additional trade enforcement is also necessary to limit the influence that Chinese-made autos and auto parts have on U.S. automakers, and to further keep these products out of the U.S. market. As we’ve previously discussed, Section 301 tariffs on Chinese autos is the chief reason why we haven’t seen a flood of these cheap, subsidized cars in the United States, which has happened in places like the European Union and South America. These tariffs must remain on, and in some cases an increase may be warranted.

U.S. officials also must be cognizant of shifting trade patterns, as China is deliberately sending products for final assembly to places like Vietnam and Mexico in an attempt to dodge U.S. trade enforcement and tariffs. Addressing this trade dodging will require a robust response.

Lawmakers also quickly move to pass legislation to address China’s continued malfeasance, including bills like the Leveling the Playing Field Act 2.0 and Import Security and Fairness Act, which seeks to close the “de minimis” loophole that has allowed so many Chinese imports to enter the United States without inspection.

Bravo to Human Rights Watch for conducting a thorough investigation into the human rights abuses taking place in Xinjiang, and calling out the companies that aren’t doing enough to address it. Automakers can limit their exposure to forced Uyghur labor by moving operations outside of China as quickly as possible and sourcing aluminum from the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. officials and policymakers need to get to work to ensure that more is being done to limit domestic exposure to these tainted goods and decrease the power China’s government has over this critical global industry.