Audit of SAIC-Volkswagen plant demonstrates due diligence is not possible in the Uyghur Region

62 groups call on consultancies, auditors, certification bodies, and other service providers to immediately cease providing services in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Uyghur Region). Social audits and certification schemes are not designed to identify the egregious human rights abuses that are perpetrated as part of state-imposed forced labour programmes or in furtherance of them. They are not an appropriate preventive measure, or evidence of compliance with forced labour regulations.

Despite this, in June 2023, Volkswagen announced an audit of SAIC-Volkswagen (Xinjiang) Automotive Co., Ltd., a plant operated by a subsidiary of the joint venture between Chinese state-owned SAIC Motor Corp. Ltd. and Volkswagen Group, in Urumchi, the capital of the Uyghur Region. On December 5, 2023, Volkswagen shared that Löning-Human Rights & Responsible Business GmbH (Löning), a German based management consultancy, facilitated the audit of the plant. The audit was carried out by an unnamed Shenzhen-based law firm, which Löning accompanied on-site.

Many Uyghur and human rights groups condemned Volkwagen’s audit on the basis that, due to the widespread repression in the Uyghur Region and the Chinese government’s state-imposed forced labour programmes, there are no valid means to verify that any workplace in the Uyghur Region is free of forced labour or to prevent the use of forced labour in these workplaces in line with human rights due diligence. Further, the necessary elements for an effective audit are not present:

  • Worker interviews, which are essential to the methodology of any labour or human rights investigation, cannot generate reliable information in a circumstance where workers cannot speak candidly to factory auditors about forced labour or other human rights issues without placing themselves and their families at risk of retaliation.
  • There are widespread restrictions and repression of fundamental freedoms and of human rights defenders, and civic space has been shut down. Uyghurs live in a constant atmosphere of fear; even the slightest infraction of the Chinese government’s arbitrary rules can lead to internment, as human rights organisations and the United Nations have extensively documented.
  • The human rights abuses occurring in the Uyghur Region are bolstered by a pervasive, technology-enabled system of surveillance, through extensive digital and personal surveillance systems. Uyghurs are monitored around the clock, even in private. Any audit occuring in the Region could not be conducted without being surveilled by the Chinese government, and therefore few workers will want to speak to auditors, or at least about the reality of their lived experiences.
  • The Chinese government is systematically curtailing the independence of international audit firms. Auditors have complained of extreme surveillance, including the use of facial recognition and tracking of physical and digital movements. Multiple audit firms ceased operating in the Uyghur Region years ago due to the repressive environment and fear of reprisal for both auditors and workers.

In an interview in the Financial Times, Löning staff spoke about the concerns with the project and made clear no staff was involved. Further, the founder and managing director, Markus Löning, explicitly cited the limitation of worker interviews, a key component of social audits, in this context: “[T]he main basis for the audit had been a review of documentation relating to the 197 employees at the plant rather than interviews adding that this could be ‘dangerous’. ‘Even if they would be aware of something, they cannot say that in an interview.’” The audit was conducted notwithstanding these limitations and, unsurprisingly, found no evidence of forced labour.

Markus Löning’s statement that it was “not commenting on the ‘symbolism’ of VW’s presence in Xinjiang”, demonstrates a lack of understanding of the egregious human rights abuses occurring in the Uyghur Region; the state-imposed forced labour programmes must not be looked at in isolation from the broader abuses, including mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, and forced separation of families. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights 2022 report, “the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention” of Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples, within the context of other restrictions and deprivation, “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” Uyghur forced labour, therefore, should be understood as a key tool by which the government is inflicting its persecution against Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim-majority people. The situation within individual workplaces, and the risks of corporate contribution to the persecution in the Uyghur Region, must be assessed within this broader context.

Volkswagen was directly asked about the credibility of the findings from the audit by the Association of Ethical Shareholders Germany, Society for Threatened Peoples Germany, and World Uyghur Congress. Volkswagen failed to provide further details about the audit. In February 2024, new evidence emerged “of the use of forced labour in the construction of a test track in Turpan, [Uyghur Region], which is operated by a subsidiary of the joint venture of SAIC and Volkswagen.” In response to the allegations, Volkswagen said “[it] is currently in talks with the non-controlled joint venture SAIC-Volkswagen about the future direction of business activities in [the Uyghur Region]. Different scenarios are being considered intensively”.

Cutting ties to the Uyghur Region will have a tangible impact on forced labour and is essential to ending the crimes against humanity taking place. Disengagement is also in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). The recent guidance by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights states, “Although the UNGPs stipulate that businesses should seek to exercise leverage where they are contributing or linked to such harms, it may be the case that business enterprises have little, if any, leverage with governments involved in carrying out egregious violations. Where sufficient leverage is lacking, those enterprises that are at risk of being involved in gross human rights abuses will need to rapidly come to a decision about [disengagement]”.

All auditing firms (and accreditation bodies)

  • Should immediately stop conducting labour audits in the Uyghur Region and urge companies to end all operations and supply chain links to the Uyghur Region to prevent exposure to state-imposed forced labour.
  • Should clearly state that social audits are not designed to identify state-imposed forced labour and must not be used to demonstrate an absence of Uyghur forced labour.

All companies

  • Should not commission audits in the Uyghur Region or accept audits from suppliers as proof that a product is free from Uyghur forced labour.
  • Should exit the Uyghur Region at every level of their supply chains and cease doing business with suppliers implicated in Uyghur forced labour
    • Stop sourcing any raw materials, inputs, or finished products from the Uyghur Region.
    • Prohibit any supplier factories located outside of the Uyghur Region from using Uyghurs or Turkic or Muslim workers supplied through the Chinese government’s forced labour transfer scheme.

Governments

  • Should not deem labour audits or certifications conducted in the Uyghur Region as credible, and reject them as evidence of compliance with supply chain and forced labour regulations.
  • In the design and/or implementation of legislation pertaining to due diligence and/or forced labour, should prohibit the use of audits and certifications as proof alone of meaningful human rights due diligence in context where there is a risk of state-imposed forced labour such as in the Uyghur Region.
  • Should enact and robustly enforce import control legislation banning imports of goods made with forced labour. This legislation must include appropriate mechanisms to address state-imposed forced labour, such as the ability to restrict the importation of goods from a region or specific product groups.

Signed:

  1. ACPDH Burundi
  2. Advocates for Public Interest Law
  3. Anti-Slavery International
  4. Association of Ethical Shareholders Germany
  5. Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association
  6. Be Slavery Free
  7. Campaign For Uyghurs
  8. CAP Liberté de Conscience
  9. Casa de Esperanza
  10. CFIE
  11. Climate Rights International
  12. Coretta and Martin Luther King Institute for Peace
  13. Corporate Accountability Lab
  14. Dutch Uyghur Human Rights Foundation
  15. Ekō
  16. Environmental Justice Foundation
  17. Equidem
  18. ETI Sweden
  19. European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR)
  20. Freedom United
  21. Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum
  22. Global Legal Action Network
  23. Global Rights Compliance
  24. Green America
  25. Grupo de Apoio ao Tibete-Portugal
  26. Human Rights Foundation
  27. Human Rights Now
  28. Human Rights Watch
  29. Investor Alliance for Human Rights
  30. Irish Uyghur Cultural Association
  31. Italian Federation for Human Rights – FIDU
  32. Japan Uyghur Association
  33. Jewish Movement for Uyghur Freedom
  34. Labour Behind the Label
  35. Lady Lawyer Foundation
  36. Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN)
  37. Mighty Earth
  38. Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
  39. No Business With Genocide
  40. Norwegian Uyghur Committee
  41. Partners for Dignity and Rights
  42. Public Citizen
  43. René Cassin, the Jewish voice for human rights
  44. Sisters of St. Dominic of Blauvelt, N.Y.
  45. SlaveFree Today
  46. Social Justice Coordinator for SMR Investments in USA
  47. Society for Threatened Peoples Germany
  48. The Human Trafficking Legal Center
  49. The International Corporate Accountability Roundtable
  50. Transparentem
  51. UAW
  52. UNISON
  53. Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania
  54. Unseen
  55. Uyghur American Association
  56. Uyghur Association of Victoria, Australia
  57. Uyghur Center for Democracy and Human Rights (UZDM)
  58. Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP)
  59. Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project (URAP)
  60. Worker Rights Consortium
  61. Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network
  62. World Uyghur Congress

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We defend the human rights of uyghur people and the free world by exposing and confronting the chinese government's genocide, and empowering uyghur women and youth in the diaspora.

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