While some multinational companies decided to cut ties with Chinese suppliers over Xinjiang forced labour accusations, Volkswagen has defended its decision to continue operating a car plant in the Chinese region mired with allegations of large-scale human rights abuses.
Despite China’s insistence that the claims are untrue, evidence suggests that hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other minorities are being detained in camps, or used as forced labour in factories.
Volkswagen’s critics argue that it has a particular moral obligation not to be involved in such practices because of its history.
The company was founded by the ruling German Nazi Party in 1937 and used forced labour – including concentration camp prisoners – in its factories during WWII.
But in an interview with the BBC in Beijing, the company’s CEO in China, Stephan Wollenstein, defended Volkswagen’s presence in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, where it runs a factory with 600 workers, producing up to 20,000 vehicles a year.
“What happened in the Nazi times was something that happened in our factories where we had forced labour, people producing Volkswagen cars,” he said.
“This certainly is an unacceptable situation. Therefore, we are making sure that none of our production sites have forced labour, and this is something that we specifically checked in Urumqi and I can assure you, we do not have forced labour.”
But when asked whether he could be absolutely certain of that claim and give an assurance that none of the Urumqi workforce – of which around 25% is made up of Uyghurs and other minorities – had been in a camp, Dr. Wollenstein said he couldn’t.
“We try to control our company-related processes, including the HR process, which, for instance, means the hiring of people in the best possible manner,” he said.
“And this reduces for us the risk that something happens which we do not like and which is not complying to our standards. But I guess we could never reach 100% certainty.”
For critics, that defence falls short.
Viola von Cramon-Taubadel is a Green Party member of the European Parliament and formerly a member of the German Federal Parliament from Lower Saxony – the state where Volkswagen’s headquarters is based.
“Why can’t they be certain? They should make sure that there is no linkage between any labour camp and that company,” she told the BBC.
Even if VW could prove categorically that their own supply chain was clean, the criticism goes far deeper.
Because opening a car plant in Xinjiang requires the partnership and approval of the Chinese authorities, the concern is that it risks lending tacit support to the policies of mass incarceration and ethnic repression, for which there is now compelling evidence.
Satellite data, the testimony of witnesses and China’s own government records make clear the scale of the camp building and the coercion behind the factory labour.
While China insists it has been providing de-extremification training for Xinjiang’s traditionally Muslim minorities, and running large-scale job creation schemes, the real aim appears to be the forced assimilation of identities and cultures now viewed by the state as inherently disloyal.
With international governments and rights-groups raising their voices in condemnation, and some major brands distancing themselves, Volkswagen finds itself out of step on Xinjiang. (Source: BBC)