By Michael Martina
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. senator on Thursday slammed American companies, including Amazon.com Inc, Apple Inc and Nike Inc, for turning a blind eye to allegations of forced labor in China, arguing they were making American consumers complicit in Beijing’s repressive policies.
Speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on China’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said many U.S. companies had not woken up to the fact that they were “profiting” from the Chinese government’s abuses.
“For far too long companies like Nike and Apple and Amazon and Coca-Cola were using forced labor. They were benefiting from forced labor or sourcing from suppliers that were suspected of using forced labor,” Rubio said. “These companies, sadly, were making all of us complicit in these crimes.”
Senator Ed Markey, who led the hearing with fellow Democrat Tim Kaine, said a number of U.S. technology companies had profited from the Chinese government’s “authoritarian surveillance industry,” and that many of their products “are being used in Xinjiang right now.”
Thermo Fisher Scientific said in 2019 it would stop selling genetic sequencing equipment into Xinjiang after rights groups and media documented how authorities there were building a DNA database for Uyghurs. But critics say the move didn’t go far enough.
“All evidence is that they continue to provide these products which enabled these human rights abuses,” Rubio said of Thermo Fisher, noting that he had written the Massachusetts-based company repeatedly about the matter.
“Whenever we receive proof of forced labor, we take action and suspend privileges to sell,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
Coca-Cola declined to comment. The other companies mentioned did not respond immediately to Reuters’ questions.
U.S. lawmakers are seeking to pass legislation that would ban imports of goods made in Xinjiang over concerns about forced labor.
Rights groups, researchers, former residents and some western lawmakers say Xinjiang authorities have facilitated forced labor by arbitrarily detaining around a million Uyghurs and other primarily Muslim minorities in a network of camps since 2016.
The United States government and parliaments in countries, including Britain and Canada, have described China’s policies toward Uyghurs as genocide. China denies abuses, saying the camps are for vocational training and to counter religious extremism.
Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, told the Senate panel that Beijing’s “extreme repression and surveillance” made human rights due diligence for companies impossible.
“Inspectors cannot visit facilities unannounced or speak to workers without fear of reprisal. Some companies seem unwilling or unable to ascertain precise information about their own supply chains,” she said.
(Reporting by Michael Martina, Richa Naidu, Aishwarya Venugopal and Jeffrey Dastin; editing by Jonathan Oatis)