Although Volkswagen claims that its plant in the Xinjiang region of China does not benefit from forced labor, fears that the car plant is tacitly supporting the practice are leading to strong criticism.
The plant employs 600 workers and produces up to 20,000 vehicles there per year. Volkswagen says that it hires those employees itself, using its own HR department to ensure that the plant is properly operated. It also claims that none of its suppliers in the region use forced labor.
When pressed, though, VW’s China CEO Stephan Wollenstein (pictured above) admitted that he couldn’t provide 100% certainty that none of the plant’s employees had been through the region’s many detention camps.
The company claims to be doing whatever it can to reduce the risk of it being involved with forced labor, but that may not be enough. China requires foreign automakers to partner with local companies, as well as partnerships and approvals from Chinese authorities, the fear is that VW operating a plant in the region is tacit approval of the government’s well-documented policies of mass incarceration and ethnic repression.
European politicians have pointed this out. Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, a member of the European Parliament from Germany representing the Green Party, claims that VW’s plant lends the Chinese government’s policies legitimacy.
“Volkswagen knows this – they have done it exactly for this, to get a comparative advantage,” said von Cramon-Taubadel per the BBC. “It was a political issue from the very beginning – economically it is useless, it doesn’t make sense at all.”
Fears extend beyond VW’s simply tacit support. A Chinese report suggests that the company worked with the People’s Armed Armed Police, an organization with a large role in Xinjiang’s securitization. According to the report, VW donated vehicles to the organization in exchange for “military training” and “patriotic education.”
Those terms are heavily associated with the wider internment camps. Wollenstein says that only two vehicles were donated and that they were given by the company’s local partner SAIC. But that’s exactly why critics fear that VW’s presence in the area is bad, even if VW can claim to technically not be involved in the area’s forced labor practices.
Wollenstein also said that no military training or patriotic education took place at its factory, but admitted that it could not be sure it wasn’t happening outside the factory.
“I would say everything that is happening outside the fences of all of our production sites all over China and what is happening in the spare time of our employees is out o four control,” Wollenstein told the BBC.
But VW is the only foreign automaker with a plant in the region, so although it is not in control of what is happening outside its factories, it is in control of what is outside of its factory.
Critics are pointing to VW’s history as an arm of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity for obvious reasons. But VW’s questionable history with repressive regimes goes much deeper. Just this year VW admitted that security guards at its Brazillian plants played a role in turning factory workers over to a brutal dictatorship.
Naturally, Volkswagen isn’t unique in its willingness to ignore crimes against humanity for the sake of profit. Being heavily invested in China, though, any decisions it makes in the region will likely have to be weighed against the sales it could lose if it angers China’s ruling party and a massive hit to its profits. Just how much is VW willing to ignore in pursuit of profits?
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