A US senator on Thursday accused several giant American companies of turning a blind eye to allegations of forced labour in China.
Speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation into Beijing’s crackdown on Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region, Senator Marco Rubio said many US companies had not yet woken up to the fact that they were profiting from the Chinese government’s abuses.
“For far too long companies like Nike, Apple, Amazon and Coca-Cola were benefiting from forced labour or sourcing from suppliers that were suspected of using forced labour,” Rubio said. “These companies, sadly, were making all of us complicit in these crimes.”
Senator Ed Markey, who led the hearing, said a number of US technology companies had profited from the Chinese government’s “authoritarian surveillance industry”, and that many US products “are being used in Xinjiang right now” to monitor minorities.
Thermo Fisher Scientific said in 2019 it would stop selling genetic sequencing equipment to Xinjiang after rights groups and media documented how authorities there were building a DNA database of Uighurs.
However, critics say the move didn’t go far enough.
“All evidence is that they continue to provide these products which enabled these human rights abuses,” Rubio said of Thermo Fisher, noting that he had written to the Massachusetts-based company repeatedly about the matter.
US lawmakers are seeking to pass legislation that would ban imports of goods made in Xinjiang over concerns about forced labour.
Rights groups say Beijing and Xinjiang authorities have facilitated forced labour by arbitrarily detaining around a million Uighurs and other primarily Muslim minorities in a network of camps since 2016.
China denies abuses, saying the camps are for vocational training and to counter religious extremism.
An Amazon spokesman said, “Whenever we receive proof of forced labour, we take action and suspend privileges to sell.”
Coca-Cola declined to comment. The other companies mentioned did not respond immediately to Reuters’ questions.
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, told the Senate panel that Beijing’s “extreme repression and surveillance” makes human rights oversight for international companies impossible.
She said, “Inspectors cannot visit facilities unannounced, or speak to workers without fear of reprisal.”
However she also said that some companies seem unwilling to seek out precise information about their own supply chains.