Masks manufactured at a Chinese factory using allegedly coerced Uighur labor are being sold in Australia, according to reports.
Australian demand for masks is expected to skyrocket in coming weeks, after authorities in Victoria mandated their use in metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell shire, and recommended them for regional areas.
At least 200,000 masks made by Hubei Haixin Protective Products Group in China and then sent to multiple distributors in Australia are in question, and consumers might be unwittingly purchasing masks made by allegedly coerced labor.
Illustration: Lance Liu
Experts are now warning local mask distributors, governments and consumers to ensure their supply chains are not tainted by factories using forced Uighur labor.
Earlier this year, a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank identified a series of factories linked to a program of forced labor involving 80,000 Uighurs, a persecuted minority subjected to mass detentions, surveillance and restrictions on their cultural and religious beliefs — in what critics say amounts to cultural genocide.
The report described the labor program as “a new phase in China’s social re-engineering,” and found evidence that some Uighur workers were shipped far from their homes to factories across China between 2017 and last year, including in some cases directly from detention centers.
The evidence suggested highly coercive conditions, including constant surveillance, the banning of religious observance, limited freedom of movement, segregated dormitory living, supervision by “minders,” mandatory “ideological training,” anthem-singing, flag-raising and Mandarin classes.
One of the factories named in the ASPI report belonged to Hubei Haixin, which manufactures personal protective equipment in Hubei Province, central China, and exports to a range of countries, including Australia.
The state-run Hubei Daily newspaper reported that the company, in agreement with the Chinese government, transported 131 Uighur women aged 19 to 31 from their home in Xinjiang to the company’s factory in Hubei by train earlier this year, a distance of more than 3,200km.
The women must participate in flag-raising and anthem-singing ceremonies, learn Mandarin, and live and eat on-site in separate dormitories and a canteen.
The Hubei Daily report described the program as a labor recruitment program, designed to fill staff shortages in the factory while addressing poverty in Xinjiang — claims that are disputed by analysts as propaganda.
The company confirmed that it exported supplies to Australia, and that Uighur people were part of its workforce under the government’s policy “supporting Xinjiang development.”
“We need to develop the western region, let the people there be employed and improve their living standards, and help them get rich,” the company said.
“We have dedicated dormitories, chefs, and teachers for them ... because their language is different from here, there are teachers. Every employee will have a teacher to supervise them, talk to them and arrange work,” the company said.
It declined to comment further when asked about claims of forced labor.
At least two Australian companies have purchased stocks of masks from Hubei Haixin for local distribution.
Both said they were unaware of the use of Uighur labor, and have expressed concern about the allegations.
One of the companies, MCG Electronics, says Hubei Haixin has shipped about 200,000 masks to various distributors in Australia since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Thank you for sharing this update with us because we were totally unaware of such involvement,” a company spokesman said in an e-mailed response to questions.
An investigation by the New York Times this week, which identified personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers in China using Uighur labor and exporting to the US, drew sharp rebuke from Chinese state media, which accused it of “hyping forced labor fallacies.”
“This aims to slander China’s poverty alleviation policies in Xinjiang as transferring surplus labor in Xinjiang is an important way to increase local residents’ incomes,” the report in hawkish state mouthpiece, the Global Times said.
Peter Irwin, the senior program officer at the US-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, said China’s forced labor program was often labelled “poverty alleviation,” but was “inextricably linked to broader, coercive policies intended to erase the Uighur identity itself.”
“Mass detention for the purpose of ‘re-educating’ the population is its most obvious manifestation, but it filters down into nearly every aspect of Uighur life,” Irwin said.
“The forced labor programs were developed alongside these policies as a means of extracting labor from Uighurs while at the same time forcing them to attend indoctrination classes,” he said.
It is extremely difficult for consumers to work out whether the masks they are buying might have been made with Uighur labor.
It requires working out which Australian distributor has supplied a particular shop, then tracing the distributor’s supply chain back to a Chinese factory, and determining whether that factory has been named in a report on forced labor.
Experts also say Western companies face extreme difficulty in auditing supply chains in China due to the secrecy and sensitivity surrounding its treatment of Uighurs.
ASPI analyst Vicky Xu, who investigated the Uighur labor program with research assistant Stephanie Zhang, said it was becoming “absolutely impossible” for auditors to conduct normal human rights checks on factories in China, making due diligence extremely difficult.
“What companies in Australia can do is conduct as much soft due diligence as possible,” she said. “If a think tank like us can figure out what a company’s supply chain looks like, I think Australian importers will be able to conduct a desktop-based investigation, look into their own supply chains, ask questions, and try as much as possible to avoid factories and brands that use Uighur labor, especially potential forced labor.”
The second Australian company, My Queen Pty, was also unaware of the allegations of Uighur labor use, and only purchased one batch of masks from Hubei Haixin. The company has no plans for further purchases, and says the small amount of masks it imported were mainly kept for internal staff use.
Xu said Uighur workers were generally kept under heavy surveillance, including through an app on their phone, WeChat groups, and by police officers and factory managers.
She said that in modern China, “you don’t need a whip, you don’t need brutal force, you just need all these surveillance measures in place and no one will dare oppose.”
“When they get shipped out, according to multiple documents including state media and government documents, every 50 workers have one minder, and sometimes there are Xinjiang police officers who travel with them,” Xu said.
“They arrive at the factory, they work, and outside of work hours they have to study Mandarin, they have to take these political classes that are basically indoctrination sessions. They live in segregated dormitories and eat at segregated canteens,” she said.
“We couldn’t see and visit every factory that we looked into, but the factories that we did visit ... there are barbed wire fences around the factory, there are watchtowers, there is a police station inside the factory compound, there are AI cameras,” she said.
Xu did not visit the Hubei Haixin factory.
The lack of transparency in supply chains makes it extraordinarily difficult for companies to be checked for the use of Uighur labor, but that should not let them off the hook, Irwin said.
“We all know that the [Chinese] supply chains are designed murky to avoid complicity in these very issues,” he said.
“Australian companies in this case need to take a hard look at their supply chains and determine whether it is even possible to understand if they are sourcing from factories implicated in forced labor. If they are doing so, they are implicated in the much broader abuses,” he said.
China’s PPE supply has been contentious throughout the pandemic.
When the outbreak began in China, officials, expats and companies rushed to buy up medical equipment around the world and ship it home. When the burden of infection shifted to the rest of the world, China increased production and began shipping planeloads of equipment to virus-hit countries as “aid,” and to others as commercial supply.
The ramp up in production and supply was dubbed “mask diplomacy,” and conflated with international politics and reputation-building more than with altruism. Chinese authorities were forced to repeatedly alter export requirements after shipments of faulty goods.
As hostilities deepened between Beijing and Western powers, including the US, UK and EU, “aid” shipments were concentrated toward African and South American nations, and previous recipients of Belt and Road Initiative investment.
In the past few months China’s treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, as well as its growing aggression in Hong Kong and the South China Sea, has sparked international sanctions and seizures of tonnes of goods believed to be associated with forced labor.
Additional reporting by Pei Lin Wu
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