Face masks imported from China could be made with Uighur forced labour

Face masks imported from China could be made with Uighur forced labour
A number of Chinese PPE producers exporting face masks around the world employ Uighur forced labour, according to a new investigation.
3 min read
20 July, 2020
Well-known fashion and electronic brands have also been linked to Uighur forced labour [Getty]
More than dozen Chinese companies are using Uighur forced labour to satisfy global demand for face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new investigation.

Dozens of new PPE producers have sprouted up over the course of the pandemic, The New York Times reported on Sunday, with at least 17 employing Uighur labourers through a state-sponsored programme that analysts say amounts to forced labour.

Human rights organisations and activists describe the system - endorsed by Beijing as a method of poverty reduction - as part of a system of repression targeting Uighur and other Muslim minorities in the northwestern Xinjiang province.

At least 1 million Muslims, most of them of the Uighur ethnic minority, are believed to be held in detention camps throughout Xinjiang. The Chinese government contends that these camps are "re-education centers" designed to steer Muslims away from Islamic extremism and Uighur seperatism.

Leaked documents indicate that when detainees are released from camps many are sent to work at factories in Xinjiang and beyond.

Reports suggest that most, if not all, of the Uighurs working in such factories are forced to do so, and face continuing restrictions on movement and worship.

They are also required to take part in Mandarin classes and a weekly flag-raising ceremony. 

The New York Times reviewed hundreds of videos and photos, as well as official documents and shipping data, to identify PPE producers in China involved in the alleged forced labour scheme.

A number of those companies have exported PPE such as face masks to the United States and other foreign countries, according to The New York Times.

The new report indicates that alleged forced labour has been aided by a boom in demand for PPE production due to the coronavirus epidemic.

Before the spread of Covid-19, there were just four producers of medical-grade PPE in the Uighur-majority Xinjiang province alone.

As of June, there are 51 - at least 17 of which participate in the government's so-called "poverty reduction" programme.

Global customers

Former detainees are also transferred elsewhere in China to work.

Hubei Haixin Protective Products, a PPE producer located nearly 2,000 miles away in the central province of Hubei, has also utilised forced Uighur labour, according to The New York Times.

By tracking its shipments, the paper found that Hubei Haixin sold products to a medical equipment company in the US. Face masks produced by Hubei Haixin are also available for purchase on the US-based e-commerce platform Yamibuy.

A second exporter identified by the paper was Medwell Medical Products, which Chinese state media says employs Uighurs as 25 percent of its workforce. Videos of the factory site seen by The New York Times appear to show segregated living and dining quarters for workers from Xinjiang.

Read more: How much of your stuff is linked to forced Uighur labour?

In an interview with state television earlier this year, a representative from the company said it had received orders for 20 million face masks from abroad by early April.

Medwell's main market is Europe, including Italy, Spain and Portugal, the representative said. The company has also shipped PPE to coronavirus hotspots in Latin America, such as Brazil.

Earlier this year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (APSI) revealed more than 80 global brands linked to Chinese factories believed to be using Uighur forced labour.

Among the companies identified by APSI were Nike, Apple, Bosch and Panasonic. Popular brands H&M, Uniqlo and Muji were also implicated in the practice through their import of Xinjiang cotton.

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