Did Modern Slavery Help Build Your Car?

Estimated read time 5 min read

In the modern West we’ve all but obliterated slavery, a practice which sadly doesn’t seem nearly as unsettling to the Chinese Communist Party and its allies. If you’ve heard the accusations of Chinese companies using forced Uyghur laborers, it’s likely a topic that leaves you feeling a little sick to your stomach. And the sad truth is there are quite a few indications you might have unwittingly benefitted from slave labor through lower-cost car parts.

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Back in early December 2022 the United Auto Workers union decided to try putting this issue front and center, although it largely flew under the radar in US mainstream media. At the time, UAW cited a report from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK that claims almost every major automaker has ties to forced Uyghur labor in China’s Xinjiang region.

The United States has made it illegal to import any goods produced through forced labor in Xinjiang, thanks to leaders in Washington, D.C. officially labeling the treatment of Uyghurs by the Chinese government as genocide. But UAW leadership wanted to go further and push for the auto industry to move supply chains entirely out of Xinjiang. For reasons that should seem rather apparent, that doesn’t seem to be happening, at least not on a noticeable scale.

The details in the Sheffield Hallam University report are disturbing, with researchers concluding “if you have bought a car in the last five years, some of its parts were likely made by Uyghurs and others forced to work in China.” This is all thanks to the Chinese Communist Party “making international supply chains captive” to the cheap slave labor.

Surprisingly, the report concludes that steel and aluminum sourced from China are the most likely materials to involve forced labor. Copper is another common source of slave labor, as are batteries, electronics, floor mats, and seat cushions. Thanks to government subsidies and incentives, Chinese companies have switched the processing of many vital metals to the Uyghur Region. But most consumers in the West seem completely unaware of this development.

If you feel manipulated to an extent, that’s intentional. As Sheffield researchers point out, China has been working hard to make itself an international manufacturing powerhouse by 2025. Not only has this been accomplished by literally enslaving ethnic minors to keep operating costs down, Chinese manufacturing policies have hollowed our entire communities in the US, leaving those who stay in those areas impoverished and desperate. What’s worse, many politicians and business leaders have turned their backs on these communities as if they were disposable.

To characterize these types of Chinese Communist Party economic policies as grey zone warfare, or a way to weaken an enemy without firing a single shot, isn’t a stretch. But what’s truly horrifying is certain powers in the West are profiting off the exploited labor in China and the weakening of manufacturing in their home countries, and this has been going on for some time. Now that the CCP’s dreams of becoming a force to be truly reckoned with on the global stage are coming to fruition, people are finally starting to fully realize what’s been happening. As they say, better late than never, but the economic casualties have been severe.

What’s a single consumer to do about parts manufacturers using forced Uyghur labor in China? Some might think corporate ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) certifications guard against these types of human rights violations, but Sheffield’s report points out “industry associations and certification schemes emphasize links to raw materials mining but are comparatively blind to the processing and refining.” In other words, such checks are limited, if not utterly useless. And many have accused ESG of being weaponized to take out socio-political opponents, casting doubt on its supposed utility.  

Sheffield believes legislatures should pass laws requiring companies doing business within their borders to perform due diligence on potential human rights violations beyond their first-tier suppliers. Many automakers and parts suppliers stay blithely unaware of such things when they could easily investigate and uncover some inconvenient truths. But profit margins must be protected.

You as a private consumer are also a voter. Insisting candidates for Congress support implementing these types of laws is one way to help address the problem. If the automotive industry could be used as an example that the government will no longer allow manufacturers to turn a blind eye to slave labor, the situation could rapidly change.

Others have insisted there should be a complete decoupling from the Chinese economy. Considering how far the deception has gone in this and other areas, that might not be a bad idea.

The most important thing everyone can do is not bury and forget about slavery being used in China. Too many people don’t want to have the conversation about Uyghur labor in the automotive industry because it threatens to rock the boat and they’re doing just fine with how things are right now. That’s not a moral justification for sweeping these revelations back under the rug.

Images via Pixaby, David Peterson, Tom Fisk, Christian Thoni, Tom Fisk

Steven Symes https://writerstevensymes.com/

Steven Symes is an accomplished automotive journalist with a passion for all things related to cars. His extensive knowledge and love for the automotive world shine through in his writing, which covers a diverse range of topics.

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