Xinjiang, northwest China, is home to a large population of Muslim Uighurs who have been repeatedly persecuted by the government.
Companies producing personal protective equipment (PPE) in China are using Uighur labour to meet growing global demand, according to a New York Times investigation.
Before the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March, there were four companies in the Xinjiang region making PPE – this had risen to 51 by the end of June, the Times report states.
Human rights groups and governments around the world have recorded a series of attacks on the Uighur minority, including alleged sterilisation programmes, forced labour and “re-education” camps.
According to the Times report, Uighur people detained in these labour camps have been placed in factories during the pandemic to make face masks and other pieces of PPE.
The report states that, of the 51 companies making PPE in Xinjiang in June, at least 17 were participating in government-sponsored labour transfer programmes, which one expert said could be identified as forced labour.
“The rural poor that are being put into factory work are not going by choice,” Amy K. Lehr, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Times. “These are coercive quotas that cause people to be put into factory work when they don’t want to be – and that could be considered forced labor under international law.”
The Times analysed videos, photos, government documents, satellite images and shipping data which it says directly links Uighur labour to PPE factories that are shipping supplies to the US and other countries around the world.
It highlighted a Chinese government broadcast showing around 50 workers arriving at the Tianshan textile factory in Xinjiang, preparing to start their new positions.
“But behind this propaganda is a hidden story, about a longstanding and highly controversial government labor program that experts say often puts people to work against their will,” the Times report states.
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“We identified several Chinese companies that use Uighur labor to produce PPE, and we tracked some of their shipments to consumers in the US and around the world.”
Chinese policy in the long-running conflict with the Muslim minority in Xinjiang also involves mass surveillance and incarceration without trial, campaigners say.
It is thought that there could be up to 1 million Uighur people detained in camps across the Xinjiang region, which has a population of around 21 million.
China has repeatedly denied accusations that Uighur people are being held against their in detention centres. Officials have previously said the facilities are used to hold vocational training programmes as part of the state’s battle against religious extremists.
On Sunday, China’s ambassador was confronted with footage purporting to show blindfolded Uighur detainees being led on to train.
He denied human rights abuses, accusing “so-called western intelligence” of making repeated “false allegations” against China when he was shown the footage by the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.