Volkswagen-commissioned audit finds no signs of forced labor at plant in China’s Xinjiang region

BEIJING — An audit commissioned by Volkswagen has found no indication of forced labor at its plant in China’s Xinjiang region, where Western governments have accused the Chinese government of human rights violations against the Uyghur ethnic minority.

The German automaker has come under fire for operating in Xinjiang, a remote western region that borders Central Asia. The U.S. government has blocked imports from Xinjiang unless it can be proven that the products were not made with forced labor.

The auditor, Loening — Human Rights and Responsible Business, conducted 40 interviews and was able to inspect the factory freely, said Markus Loening, a former German human rights commissioner who founded the consultancy.

“We could not find any indications or evidence of forced labor among the employees,” he said in remarks provided by Volkswagen from a media briefing in Germany on Tuesday.

China launched a harsh crackdown in Xinjiang around 2017 in response to a series of bombings, knifings and other attacks by Uyghurs unhappy with the communist-ruled government’s policies toward their ethnic group. Analysts estimate that a million or more people have been detained in what China has called vocational training and education centers.

The government denies any human rights violations and says the measures succesfully eliminated a terrorist threat.

The Volkswagen plant in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, is no longer assembling vehicles and functions only as a distribution hub. About 10,000 vehicles a year undergo quality checks before they are delivered to dealers in the region.

The number of workers has fallen to 197 from about 650 between 2015 and 2019, Volkswagen said. Of the total, 47 are Uyghurs and 150 are from China’s Han majority.

“The employees are paid above average and have little to do,” Loening said.

A law firm in Shenzhen, an industrial hub in eastern China, carried out the audit, accompanied by staff from Loening. The factory is owned by Volkswagen’s joint venture with SAIC Motor, a major Chinese automaker.

Loening acknowledged the difficulty of conducting audits in China. “The situation in China and Xinjiang and the challenges in collecting data for audits are well known,” he said.