Taipei, Taiwan – Major automakers including General Motors, Toyota, Volkswagen, Tesla and BYD are at high risk of using aluminum produced by forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. .
China is the world’s largest automaker as well as the largest producer of aluminum, used in tires, windshield wipers, electric vehicle (EV) batteries and other auto parts.
Nearly a fifth of China’s aluminum is produced by smelters in Xinjiang, where human rights groups estimate that more than a million ethnic minority Muslims have been subjected to internment and other abuses, including forced labor and forced sterilization.
HRW said in its report that automakers are doing little to track their supply chains in China and, in some cases, have succumbed to pressure from the Chinese government to enforce stricter sourcing standards in their Chinese joint ventures than in their global operations.
“Most companies have not done enough to map their aluminum parts supply chains and identify and address potential links to Xinjiang,” the rights group said in its 99-page report released Thursday .
“Faced with an opaque aluminum industry and the threat of retaliation from the Chinese government for investigating its ties to Xinjiang, automakers are in many cases unaware of the extent of their exposure to forced labor. Consumers should therefore not have confidence that they are buying and driving vehicles free of links to abuses in Xinjiang.
China is accused of carrying out an aggressive program of forced assimilation against Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities for more than a decade, leading to the internment of more than a million people in what Beijing has described as “vocational training centers”.
China has denied committing human rights abuses in the region and insisted its programs targeting Muslim ethnic minorities have reduced radicalization and terrorism.
In its report, HRW said “credible evidence,” including Chinese state media articles, company reports and government statements, indicates that Xinjiang aluminum producers are participating in transfer programs labor supported by the government.
While countries including the United States have banned products made in Xinjiang, materials like aluminum can be difficult to trace, the New York-based rights group said.
Aluminum from Xinjiang often takes the form of ingots, which can be melted with other materials to make an aluminum alloy, easily concealing its provenance.
Michael Dunne, CEO of Dunne Insights and an expert on the Chinese auto industry, said mapping supply chains in China can be an extremely difficult task.
“Car manufacturers’ supply chains in China sit somewhere between an exceptionally byzantine black box and an armored black box,” Dunne told Al Jazeera. “It’s like counting to infinity: you can progress but you’ll never get there.”
HRW said automakers should do more to map their supply chains or pressure their joint partners in China to do the same.
HRW said Volkswagen said in response to inquiries that the automaker had “no transparency on supplier relationships” with its joint venture partners in China.
HRW said General Motors, Toyota and BYD did not respond to requests for information, but General Motors highlighted in its annual report the difficulty of tracing their Chinese supply chain.
Tesla, which does not operate with a joint venture, said it “in several cases” mapped its supply chain down to the mining level and found no evidence of forced labor, but did not elaborate further, according to HRW.
The five automakers did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Duncan Jepsen, a UK-trained supply chain expert and lawyer, said tracing supply chains is a matter of cost and willingness on the part of manufacturers.
“For an NGO, it can be difficult to follow a supply chain in China. In other places in China, for a large, well-capitalized automaker with no financial resources… I think the answer is that maybe it’s expensive. But it’s not that difficult,” Jepsen told Al Jazeera.
“And that’s really the crux of the problem… It’s a challenge, a difficult task and almost impossible if you don’t want to spend anything on it,” he added.
China’s huge market also gives it an advantage over automakers.
In addition to being the world’s largest automaker, China is also the largest vehicle sales market – with 23.5 million vehicles sold in 2022, compared to 13.6 million in the United States, according to HRW.
“That’s the impasse they find themselves in, is that it’s not a country they particularly want to leave,” Jepsen said.
“So if they want to enter the market, how automakers handle that will be an important strategic decision. And it’s going to be interesting to watch.