Amazon has continued to work with companies in China accused of using forced labor despite public warnings about their work practices, according to a report published Monday by a nonprofit watchdog group.
The report from the Tech Transparency Project, a research group that is run by the nonprofit Campaign for Accountability and is often critical of large tech companies, found that Amazon’s public list of suppliers includes five companies previously linked by journalists and think tank researchers to “labor transfer” programs in China. The suppliers help produce Amazon-branded devices and products sold under house labels like Amazon Basics.
The report also warned that some of Amazon’s third-party sellers may be offering products made using labor from the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, such as cotton imports that are already the subject of U.S. sanctions.
“The findings raise questions about Amazon’s exposure to China’s repression of minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang — and the extent to which the e-commerce giant is adequately vetting its supplier relationships,” researchers from the Tech Transparency Project wrote in the report.
Amazon declined to comment on the specific allegations. In a general statement, Erika Reynoso, a spokesperson for the company, said: “Amazon complies with the laws and regulations in all jurisdictions in which it operates, and expects suppliers to adhere to our Supply Chain Standards. We take allegations of human rights abuses seriously, including those related to the use or export of forced labor. Whenever we find or receive proof of forced labor, we take action.”
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank, estimates that from 2017 to 2019, at least 80,000 people from Xinjiang, a mostly Muslim region, were coerced to work in factories across the country as part of what the Chinese government calls “labor transfer” programs. The workers are often taken from their family homes and generally have few rights, according to researchers.
American companies are under increased pressure to ensure their supply chains don’t trace back to Xinjiang, where human rights groups estimate roughly 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities have been detained in internment camps. Some of the facilities reportedly have factories built inside them. In December, President Joe Biden signed a law instructing officials to treat all imports from Xinjiang as tainted by forced labor unless proven otherwise.
Beijing has repeatedly rejected criticisms of its policies in Xinjiang. Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in a statement that “employment of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang is independent, voluntary and free.” He called reports suggesting otherwise “groundless.”
A number of Silicon Valley giants, including Apple, have been accused by journalists and researchers in recent years of working with companies that use forced Uyghur labor. Using public government documents and state media reports, the Tech Transparency Project, China Labor Watch and the tech news site The Information reported in May that Apple had worked with seven Chinese suppliers that allegedly participated in the labor transfer programs. Apple said it has “found no evidence of forced labor anywhere we operate.”
Amazon works with over 1,900 suppliers and says it conducts thousands of supply chain assessments every year, including on prospective manufacturers it may work with in the future.
In 2020, Amazon found that 8 percent of the firms it audited had labor issues related to “Freely Chosen Employment,” up from 3.2 percent the year before. It attributed the increase primarily to pre-production audits and said that “failure to meet our standards has been a factor in our decision to terminate hundreds of suppliers.”
Amazon’s business is closely entwined with China. But so far, the company has largely escaped the criticisms about forced labor that have been launched at its peers, said Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project.
“It doesn’t seem to get the same level of scrutiny,” she said.
The vast majority of suppliers responsible for producing Amazon-branded products, like its Kindle and Echo devices, are based in China, according to Amazon’s website. Many third-party sellers who offer products on its marketplace are also located in the country.
The Tech Transparency Project identified three Amazon suppliers that have been linked to forced labor in China directly: Luxshare Precision Industry, AcBel Polytech and Lens Technology. It’s not clear what specific Amazon items they may be responsible for producing. The companies did not respond to requests for comment.
According to its public supplier list, Amazon works with two subsidiaries of Luxshare: Dongguan Luxshare Precision Industry and Shenzhen Luxshare Electro Acoustic Technology. Chinese government documents reported by The Information in May showed Luxshare Precision Industry, an electronics manufacturer, had allegedly accepted “as many as hundreds of Xinjiang laborers” between 2017 and 2020. NBC News has not independently verified those documents.
Lens Technology, a company known for producing glass screens for laptops and smartphones, has accepted thousands of Uyghur workers in recent years, according to Chinese government documents first reported by The Washington Post. After receiving negative attention about its labor practices, the company reportedly began phasing out Uyghur workers from its factories.
AcBel Polytech, another electronics maker, allegedly produced an official video several years ago in collaboration with local Xinjiang authorities describing how almost 200 workers from the region were sent to work for the company, according to The Information. Some of them were filmed chanting vows of loyalty in front of a poster of the Chinese Communist Party oath, and experts told The Information the video suggested they were coerced.
Experts say it’s difficult for Uyghurs to give informed consent to be transferred to factories because the chance of being punished if they refuse is high.
Darren Byler, an international studies professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada and the author of the book “Terror Capitalism: Uyghur Dispossession and Masculinity in a Chinese City,” said Uyghurs are typically sent in batches of around 50 people to factories in other Chinese cities, which may be hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families and homes.
The workers are usually segregated by gender and accompanied by a police officer and state employee. They live in on-site dormitories and are required to participate in Mandarin and ideological training. Byler said they typically have little control over their hours, place of employment and whether they can take time off.
“They’re not really able to make those choices. It’s all very state managed and controlled,” he explained. “Their free time is not really theirs because it’s within the control of the factory and also under observation of the state. So it’s a really coercive system.”
Complicated supply chains
The Tech Transparency Project identified two additional Amazon suppliers — GoerTek and Hefei BOE Optoelectronics — that were themselves accused of working with companies that have allegedly used forced labor. Neither supplier responded to requests for comment.
In its supply chain standards manual, Amazon states in bold text that it expects suppliers to “cascade our standards to your own suppliers and subcontractors.”
The findings highlight how it can be difficult for corporations to ensure they aren’t benefiting from coercive labor practices. Byler said suppliers facing scrutiny may try to add additional intermediaries into their systems, concealing where and how all of their labor is performed.
“Most likely what we’ll see is just a lot of this being hidden to a greater extent, which means that companies really need to demand that due diligence is essential to them doing business,” he said.
The Tech Transparency Project researchers also found that Amazon continued listing two subsidiaries of the textiles manufacturer Esquel on its supplier list over a year after another subsidiary was sanctioned by the Department of Commerce for allegedly using forced labor.
The U.S. government placed sanctions on Changji Esquel Textile in July 2020. But the other subsidiaries remained on Amazon’s website until as recently as December 2021, according to the Tech Transparency Project.
Amazon declined to comment about what might have accounted for the delay, and it’s not clear how long the Esquel subsidiaries may have continued to supply the company. On its website, Amazon says it last “comprehensively updated” its supplier list in July 2021, but that partial updates are “provided on a periodic basis.”
Esquel has denied that it uses forced labor and sued the U.S. government to get removed from its blacklist. “We continue to pursue litigation in order to fully remove Changji Esquel from the Entity List as soon as possible and clear our name,” a spokesperson for the company said in an email.
Xinjiang cotton for sale
The Tech Transparency Project also found evidence of Xinjiang labor on Amazon’s third-party marketplace.
The group identified one listing for “100% China Xinjiang towels,” which was still live on the U.K. version of Amazon’s website as of Monday. In another instance, an Amazon seller simply deleted references to Xinjiang from the description of its bedding, without making any discernible changes to the underlying products.
The Tech Transparency Project said the findings raise “questions about Amazon’s monitoring of such sellers.” Amazon declined to comment. The U.S. government banned cotton imports from Xinjiang in January 2021.
Byler said it will be difficult to eradicate forced Uyghur labor from global supply chains. But cutting off suppliers and sellers known to participate in transfer programs is a step in the right direction.
“It introduces more friction in the system and raises the economic and moral cost of what the Chinese state and these manufacturers are doing,” he said.