Opinion |

Once Jews, Now Uighurs: Why Would Volkswagen Want to Be Complicit in Another Genocide?

When it comes to reputational damage, your company has more at stake than most. Why risk replaying your WWII infamy of using slave labor and workers detained in concentration camps, this time in China's Uighur region?

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A protester from the Uighur community living in Turkey at a protest in Istanbul against China’s repression of its Uighur Muslim minority. Oct. 1, 2020
A protester from the Uighur community living in Turkey at a protest in Istanbul against China’s repression of its Uighur Muslim minority. October 1, 2020.Credit: MURAD SEZER/ REUTERS

An open letter to Stephan Wollenstein, Chief Executive of Volkswagen, China

Dear Dr Wollenstein,

Last week, in a BBC interview, you defended your company’s decision to continue operating a car plant in the Uighur region of China, where forced Uighur Muslim slave labor is rampant, and up to three million Uighurs are detained in concentration camps.

These human rights atrocities are part of what our letter from over 75 international faith leaders, and the Canadian Parliament, declare is a genocide or "potential genocide" that includes the forced sterilization of women and the removal of nearly a million children from their Uyghur families to Han Chinese boarding schools.

Although you stated in the interview that your best due diligence shows you use no forced labor, you were honest enough to accept you "could never reach 100 percent certainty."

Demonstrator outside the Volkswagen showroom in Southgate, London, protesting the company’s use of Uighur forced laborCredit: Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign

You were correct to do so, for not only does research allege that you use Uighur slave labor, but evidence from the Ethical Trading Initiative and the Fair Labor Association, show that, when it comes to the Uighur region, "companies cannot rely on normal due diligence activities to either confirm — or rule out — the presence of forced labor."

Restricted access, and the comprehensive intimidation of workers being interviewed or of manufacturers compelled to participate in state employment schemes, in or even out of the Uighur region, unfortunately render your verification procedures incapable of providing credible information.

Indeed, five supply chain auditing giants and the Better Cotton Initiative are refusing to work in this region and the most recent ETI and FLA directives to companies include "identifying alternative sourcing opportunities." This has been heeded by H&M, Lacoste and Adidas, who have left the region on ethical grounds and to prevent reputational damage.

Why not you? For when it comes to reputational damage, your company has more at stake than most.

The BBC asked whether you thought Volkswagen had a moral obligation not to have a factory in a region with over 380 concentration, prison and labor camps, given your company’s Nazi party origins, its wartime use of Jewish slave labor, and its operation of 12 concentration and labor camps, a history you acknowledged and described as unacceptable.

Workers walk by the perimeter fence of what is officially known as a ‘vocational skills education center’ in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China. September 4, 2018.Credit: THOMAS PETER/ REUTERS

Your current contractual obligation, however, is to operate under China’s National Intelligence Law 2017. This requires you to "support, assist and co-operate with state intelligence work," whose agencies facilitate the arrest, interrogation and internment of Uighurs in concentration camps through routine use of advanced digital and biometric surveillance including facial, voice and DNA recognition. This too evokes echoes of your history under another totalitarian regime.

It is not only the distant past that puts you at reputational risk, but the recent past, given your company’s responsibility for the 2015 diesel emissions scandal, with its environmental and health consequences.

So why wouldn’t you now want to absolutely ensure your ethical integrity, and avoid any chance that a customer should drive a car made with slave labor? Close your factory in the Uighur region and re-site it outside China!

Doing this would live up to your own "Strategy Together 2025" platform which stresses your social responsibilities, and your code of conduct where "responsible conduct and (long-term) commercial success are not mutually exclusive, but actually foster one another." And they do, for not only does the public like an ethical company, such companies perform better.

A protester from the Uighur community living in Turkey holding an anti-China placard during a protest in Istanbul, October 1, 2020.Credit: Emrah Gurel,AP

The Jewish sages say that real repentance is achieved not by confession or remorse, but "when someone has it in his power to repeat a violation, but removes himself, and does not do so." The time has come for your company to do that with respect to using forced labor. Close the Volkswagen factory in the Uighur region!

Until you do, there will be petitions and protests. Indeed, since the BBC program, there have been protests outside one of your London showrooms, with more to follow, here and abroad. The reputational damage could be immense.

But the kudos for showing moral leadership by leaving the Uighur region could be even greater, and although it will never expiate the past, it may create a better future, not only for the Uighurs, but also for you.

As representatives of the World Uyghur Congress and the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign, we are more than open for dialogue with you on this pressing issue.

Rahima Mahmut (Director of the London Office of the World Uyghur Congress), Mia Hasenson-Gross (Rene Cassin Human Rights Fellow), Blair McDougall (Campaign Director of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign), Michael Polak (Chair of Lawyers for Uyghur Rights), Benedict Rogers (CEO of Hong Kong Watch), Dr. Sheldon Stone (advisor to the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign)

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