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New evidence further links Xinjiang company sanctioned by US to forced labor

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (6-A04-W96-K38-S41-V38/WikiCommons)
September 27, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

New evidence further links a company in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) whose products were banned from entry to the U.S. earlier this month to forced labor supplied by detainees from a local internment camp, RFA has learned.

On Sept. 14, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency issued Withhold Release Orders (WROs)—measures intended to prevent goods suspected to have been made with forced labor from entering the United States—that targeted three entities from Xinjiang and one from Anhui province in eastern China.

Among the products was apparel produced by Yili Zhuowan Garment Manufacturing Co., Ltd. and Baoding LYSZD Trade and Business Co., Ltd., located in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) county, in the XUAR’s Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture.

“Information reasonably indicates that these entities use prison and forced labor in apparel production,” CBP said at the time.

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“CBP identified forced labor indicators including the restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages, and abusive working and living conditions.”

The WROs follow a year of heightened U.S. scrutiny of Beijing’s sprawling network of camps in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since April 2017.

And on Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that would block imports from the XUAR, amid growing evidence that internment camps in the region have increasingly transitioned from political indoctrination to forced labor, with detainees being sent to work in cotton and textile factories.

Investigations by RFA have found that former detainees placed in forced and coerced labor schemes following their detention are regularly required to surrender part of their pay to camp administrators. In some cases, they are housed in dormitories on their workplace campuses and only permitted to visit their families at home as little as once a month.

In January last year, RFA learned that nine Kazakh women from Ghulja county were sent back to an internment camp after they refused to sign a labor contract with a monthly salary of 600 yuan (U.S. $90), around 40 percent of a typical wage for a manual worker, of which they would have received only around 300 yuan (U.S. $45).

The women had been sent to work in the Jiafang Garments Industrial Park after being released from an internment camp, and expected to work 12-hour shifts sewing gloves and undergo an hour’s “political education” every day for the money.

Name-brand exports

RFA recently spoke with a Europe-based Uyghur who claimed, on condition of anonymity fearing reprisal, that over the past two years their own younger sister has worked under forced labor conditions in a Zhuowan factory.

The source, who provided RFA with a number of photos of different factories and workshops, said that several small- and medium-sized factories have been built in Ghulja at the invitation of the local government.

“They produce name-brand gloves, bags, clothing, and other goods, and then export them to Russia as well as Europe and the United States,” the source said.

“These factories and workshops are tax-exempt, and the local government has assumed responsibility for electricity, water, and rent. These factories use the people from camps basically for free. They work 10-plus hours a day. Those who cannot meet the demands placed on them face all sorts of punishment.”

Photos provided by the source show that the Zhuowan factory is located within the Jiafang Garments Industrial Park and reveal rows upon rows of workshops and other buildings inside a large complex.

The source also provided the business card of Zhuowan’s general manager, Wang Xinghua. Repeated calls to Wang by RFA reporters went unanswered at the time of publishing.

The source said they felt compelled to share information about factories in the region after learning that products made by their sister and other forced laborers were making their way to countries like the U.S.

According to information available online, Zhuowan was founded with a private investment of some 460 million yuan (U.S. $67.5 million). It is registered as a limited liability company, and was registered in November of 2017, well after the start of the internment campaign in Xinjiang. The goods it produces include both leather and wool gloves.

According to the website of the Ili prefectural government, the total land area of buildings in the Jiafang Garments Industrial Park in the Ili Yidong Industrial District measures around 160 mu (26 acres). When founded in September 2016, the park contained 15 workshops and agreements were signed to locate 15 garment factories there. By August 2017, seven factories in the park were producing apparel and “close to 2,000 [people] were put to work.”

Reporting by RFA and a number of other news outlets over the past several years has shown that a staggering number of factories have been built in Xinjiang contemporaneous to the campaign of mass incarceration—many of which are located on the site of or nearby known internment camp locations.

‘Just like a camp’

Gulzira Auelkhan, a Kazakh woman RFA reported on last year who worked at Zhuowan, recognized details in the photos supplied by the source in Europe of the factory and Jiafang Industrial Park and confirmed that she had been sent there after spending 15 months prohibited from leaving an internment camp between July 2017 and October 2018.

“This is Jiafang—I worked in a glove factory there for three months,” she said.

“The Zhuowan glove factory and the camp were both on the grounds there. [The factory] was just like being in a camp. Even now, just thinking of it makes my heart cry. I can’t stand it.”

Auelkhan, who relocated to Kazakhstan in 2019 after finishing the work detail, described the factory as a two-story building on the edge of the industrial park structure, where armed police stood “everywhere.”

“It was a 20-minute bus ride between the workshop and the camp—at 6:30 a.m. Beijing time, when it was still pitch-black outside, the police would put us onto the bus and take us to the workshop,” she said.

There, she claimed, she worked on a floor with more than 200 other Uyghurs and Kazakhs who had been released from a camp.

“Between the two floors there were at least 500 Uyghur and Kazakh women, as well as a small number of Hui [Muslim] women [working],” she said.

“Excluding the 40 minutes in which we were allowed to eat meals, we spent all the rest of our time under the heavy weight of work, without even the permission to get a drink of water. We got off work at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. We would go back to the camp and take part in brainwashing sessions.”

Each day at work, Auelkhan and others were expected to sew 20 pairs of gloves, each of which could take 30-50 minutes to complete. She said that because she was forced to study Chinese at night, her eyesight had become poor and she was “never once able to complete the work assignment.”

“We tried to help one another to complete our work assignments, because there were all sorts of punishments for us if we didn’t finish,” she said. “They even scared us by saying we might go back into the camp.”

While Auelkhan was promised 600 yuan for her three-month stint at Zhuowan, at the end of the contract she received nothing and was forced to sign a document saying she had received “free job training” from the company. She was beaten by police when she told them should wouldn’t sign until she received the money she was owed.

Global market

Auelkhan told RFA she is devastated to know that the gloves she and her fellow workmates made are being sold on the global market.

“The leather gloves we sewed are sold in China for 250 yuan (U.S. $37)—the cheapest sell for 180 yuan (U.S. $26),” she said.

“They told us that the gloves are also sold in the U.S. and Germany, that they would go to foreign countries.”

When asked what brand of gloves they were making, Zhuowan managers told workers that the labels would be added once they were sent to different workshops in other parts of China.

Additional details of the link between Zhuowan and the internment system, as well as the conditions at the glove factory, were confirmed by Darren Byler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Asian Studies, at the University of Colorado, Boulder in an September 2019 interview he conducted with a Kazakh man named Erzhan Qurban published in the journal SupChina.

Qurban had spent nine months in a camp in Ghulja before being released in November 2018, at which point he was promptly forced to work at the glove factory.