Afumetto Retepu, a 42-year-old Uyghur from Tokyo who hasn’t been able to contact his family for three years, worries that they may have been forced to work at labor factories in China’s far-western Xinjiang region.

As reports shedding light on the forced labor of Uyghurs in China continue to emerge, Uyghurs in Japan and rights advocates are urging Japanese firms to take notice of their plight and are calling for more attention to be paid to China’s repressive policies toward the Muslim minority group.

“People in Japan may think that Japan has nothing to do with this problem, but it’s not true,” Retepu said. “I have no words to describe how painful it is to know that my relatives or family members of other (Uyghurs living in Japan who) we haven’t been able to reach over the past two or three years may be working there to” make a profit for Japanese companies.

During a news conference in Tokyo on Aug. 28, a group of Uyghurs and supporters called on Japanese firms with factories in China to thoroughly investigate their supply chains to see if they are connected to the ongoing repression of Uyghurs.

In March, The Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank said in a report that tens of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs were moved to work in conditions suggestive of forced labor in factories across China, supplying 83 global brands. The report, which cited government documents and local media reports, identified a network of at least 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces where more than 80,000 Uyghurs from Xinjiang have been transferred.

Twelve Japanese manufacturing giants have also been accused of complicity in the mass repression of Uyghurs by sourcing supplies from factories exploiting the minority group’s forced labor.

The Japan Uyghurs Association has sought an explanation from the companies in question on their alleged profiting from forced Uyghur labor.

According to the organization, four out of the 12 companies in question, including Sony Corp, and Panasonic Corp., did not comment on the situation in their workplaces or through their partner companies in China. Attempts by The Japan Times to reach the firms for comment were unsuccessful.

Most of the 12 companies said they had investigated companies in their supply chains but had not found any direct connection to the factories believed to be using forced Uyghur labor and condemned such practices.

For Retepu and other Uyghurs in Japan, the firms’ responses are not sufficient to clear their doubts about the companies’ links with Uyghurs’ forced labor.

Other Japanese companies, whose names were disclosed in the report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on international brands allegedly profiting from forced labor, have denied any involvement in such practices. Those companies have also stressed that the use of forced labor is in violation of internal policies aimed at preventing rights abuses.

A Uighur child plays alone in the courtyard of a home at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China's Xinjiang region. | AP
A Uyghur child plays alone in the courtyard of a home at the Unity New Village in Hotan, in western China’s Xinjiang region. | AP

However, international firms in China are faced with challenges in tracing their supply chains.

In a phone interview on Thursday, a spokesman for Sharp Corp., which has been listed among the 12 companies suspected of complicity in human rights violations, said that the company had not found any evidence supporting claims of labor exploitation at suppliers’ factories in China. Twelve of Sharp’s subsidiaries are located in China.

“Our company disapproves of any forms of human rights violations … and if such practices were discovered at any of our suppliers, we would take action to curb such abuses also through cutting ties with those suppliers,” the spokesman said.

But Sharp’s spokesman also lamented that the firm faces challenges in its efforts to fully monitor the situation in China.

The ordeal of minority groups in China has garnered international media coverage in recent years with analyses suggesting that over 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are currently imprisoned at “re-education camps,” where they are deprived of basic freedoms, from the right to practice their religion to being able to contact their families.

On Nov. 16 last year, The New York Times published an expose of more than 400 internal Chinese government documents on Beijing’s mass detentions of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The documents confirmed previous analyses suggesting the detainees in “re-education” camps are subjected to physical and psychological torture.

In the face of growing criticism, Beijing claimed in December 2019 that all “trainees” have graduated from the vocational education and training centers and all re-education camps have closed, despite no evidence confirming such claims and emerging videos supporting alleged abuse. Recent reports have also shown that many Uyghurs have been transferred to factories and mills that produce fabric or garments for international brands as part of the government’s crackdown on the minority group.

A Uighur woman shuttles schoolchildren as they ride past a propaganda poster showing Chinese President Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uighur elders in Hotan, in western China's Xinjiang region. | AP
A Uyghur woman shuttles schoolchildren as they ride past a propaganda poster showing Chinese President Xi Jinping joining hands with a group of Uyghur elders in Hotan, in western China’s Xinjiang region. | AP

Akiko Sato, an attorney with experience in the protection of workers’ rights, stressed that enterprises benefiting from supply chains in Xinjiang are partially responsible for monitoring working conditions at factories in their supply chains and ensuring the protection of workers’ human rights.

Sato, who spoke on behalf of Human Rights Now, an international nongovernmental rights group based in Tokyo, urged Japanese firms to investigate suppliers’ working conditions and take action toward stopping the abuse of Uyghurs.

The rights group said that some Japanese firms criticized for complicity in the repression of Uyghurs claimed they had not found evidence or were not able to confirm claims of abuse in workplaces in their supply chain.

“But such a response is not sufficient,” Sato said, asking such firms to further investigate the situation and to commit to ensure the protection of human rights in their businesses.

In July, a coalition of more than 180 rights organizations worldwide issued a call to action seeking brand commitment to cut all ties with suppliers involved in forced labor and end all sourcing from Xinjiang.

The main bazaar in Urumqi, in China's Xinjiang region, in 2016 | BLOOMBERG
The main bazaar in Urumqi, in China’s Xinjiang region, in 2016 | BLOOMBERG

Sato said the U.N. has pledged to commit to the protection of human rights standards and has included it in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Guidelines on human rights protection have already been included in the Human Rights Due Diligence policy adopted by the United Nations in 2011, which requires all United Nations entities to be diligent in ensuring that support to non-U.N. security forces is provided in a manner that complies with, and promotes respect for, international human rights and humanitarian laws.

Japan is expected to disclose its guidelines based on the U.N.’s guiding principles on business and human rights by the end of this year.

“The government should introduce guidelines demanding business operators to enforce policies aimed at the prevention of abuses of human rights,” she added.

ADDENDUM (Sept. 8, 2020)

Following the publication of this story on Sept. 6, 2020, two of the four Japanese companies mentioned in the Australian think tank’s report on international brands’ alleged links to Chinese factories using forced Uyghur labor responded to The Japan Times, stressing their efforts to ensure the protection of workers’ rights.

A spokesperson for Sony said the company takes the allegations in the ASPI report seriously and respects and supports international obligations and commitments to ensure the human rights of all individuals. Sony is a member of the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA), the world’s largest nonprofit coalition of leading companies, which is dedicated to improving social, environmental and ethical conditions in their global supply chains and has a code of conduct outlining practices that promote fair working conditions.

“We have been committed to prevent a negative impact on human rights and have made all reasonable efforts so as not to encourage acts that would have such an effect in any of our business operations as well as (the supply or trade) of our products or services,” the spokeswoman said in an email Monday.

The company said that if its operations led to any negative effect on human rights or their violation, it “will take immediate action to end it.”

Hitachi Ltd. revealed that it had investigated the issue and found that Uyghur workers were employed by companies in Hitachi’s supply chain between 2018 and 2019 but determined that their employment contracts had the same conditions as other workers in line with China’s employment laws. According to the company, all Uighur workers left factories in its supply chain by the end of last year. The company did not find any evidence supporting allegations of abuse.

In a written message to The Japan Times, a Hitachi spokesman said that the company has issued regulations concerning the protection of the basic human rights and that its suppliers are also required to abide by guidelines aimed at curbing abuses such as forced labor.

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