When people shifted to working from home in 2020, many renovated their homes to add offices. Influencers showed viewers how to easily install vinyl flooring from stores around the U.S., and sales of such flooring surged. But what these influencers didn’t know is that much of the vinyl flooring sold in the U.S. is made with PVC or plastic produced with forced Uyghur labor. This week on Intercepted, Mara Hvistendahl, a senior reporter for The Intercept, breaks down the supply chain from the Chinese factories to U.S. stores. She is joined by researchers Laura Murphy and Nyrola Elimä, who recently wrote a report highlighting the working conditions in the factories, their grave environmental impact, and the human consequences for Uyghur people forced to work in the facilities.
MH: As the coronavirus pandemic spread through the world in 2020 and 2021, the shift to work-from-home ushered in a home renovation boom. Basement dens became offices, bathrooms got an overhaul, bedrooms were split in two. For their Covid home reboots, many Americans turned to a kind of cheap flooring that is commonly sold at DIY stores. And, as a Home Depot commercial explained, setting up vinyl flooring in your own home is very easy.
Home Depot commercial: [Upbeat music plays.] Vinyl flooring is a great option for just about every interior living space in your home. The flooring we’re installing today is Lifeproof Rigid Core vinyl plank flooring. Lifeproof is the latest innovation in vinyl flooring.
MH: Vinyl flooring is seeing a surge of growth, boosted in part by pandemic-era renovations. The industry calls it luxury vinyl tile. But, in reality, it is layer upon layer of thin plastic, a heavily polluting concoction made with fossil fuels. And very often that plastic is produced using forced labor.
[Intercepted theme music.]
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
MH: I’m Mara Hvistendahl, a senior reporter with The Intercept. I write about national security and technology. And, for the past few months, I’ve been investigating the connection between vinyl flooring in U.S. stores, these plastics’ devastating effect on the environment and the way these plastics are produced using forced labor practices in China.
It all starts in the Xinjiang region of Northwestern China. For years, the Chinese state has persecuted the predominantly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group there.
Becky Anderson (CNN): Not one, not some, but every single provision in the United Nations Genocide Convention violated by the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Reporter (The Economist): These people are systematically oppressed by their own government.
Reporter: We’ve been waking up to horrific stories every day, heartbreaking images separating mothers from their children.
Reporter: They live in a police state where they’re monitored by one of the most advanced and intrusive surveillance systems in the world.
Samantha Simmonds (BBC): Documents seen by the BBC that are said to have been hacked from Chinese police computers show that Uyghur prisoners in the western region of Xinjiang are shot on site if they’re caught trying to escape.
MH: Uyghurs have been systematically targeted by the Chinese state, made to labor in factories with harsh chemicals that not just pollute the environment, but place the workers’ own health at risk.
The Xinjiang region is where the Zhongtai Chemical Company sits. That’s a Chinese government-owned petrochemical firm that is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.
PVC is basically plastic. It’s a critical ingredient in the kind of vinyl flooring that is sold at Home Depot and other places you can buy home building products. A recent report from the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health found that in 2020 alone, the vinyl flooring that was shipped from China to the U.S. would cover over one million miles if laid out end to end. That’s long enough to stretch from Earth to the moon four times over.
And a lot of the PVC for those floors comes from Zhongtai. The state-owned conglomerate’s four factories churn out more than two million tons of PVC resin per year.
And still more flooring made with Zhongtai PVC arrives in the United States via countries like Vietnam.
But here’s the problem: Zhongtai’s factories used forced Uyghur labor. By its account, Zhongtai has brought in thousands of Uyghur workers to toil in its facilities. And many of these workers were brought in during the pandemic when other factories in China were shut down. The workers toil in an environment saturated with coal, mercury, and PVC dust. They are exposed to respiratory hazards, neurological effects, and carcinogens.
This sort of forced labor in Xinjiang is actually part of an overt government program. The Chinese government euphemistically calls this program “the labor transfer scheme” and claims it is aimed at lifting people out of poverty. But that claim is broadly disputed by human rights experts, scholars, and Uyghur survivors themselves.
None of this dark backstory is on display in the flooring section of a DIY store, of course. Instead, flooring products at a high risk of using Xinjiang PVC have whimsical names that make it sound as if they originated in a serene forest: Sundance Canyon Hickory, Maligne Valley Oak. Both of those styles are offerings in Home Depot’s LifeProof in-house flooring line.
So I should note that Home Depot sent us a letter from one of the companies that supplies it with flooring. The letter says that the supplier’s supplier had informed it that no PVC from Xinjiang was used to produce flooring for the Home Depot.
The company also issued a statement that reads: “The Home Depot prohibits the use of forced or prison labor in its supply chain. This is an issue we take very seriously.”
[Low, droning music.]
MH: The toll taken by the flooring industry is detailed in a report recently released by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice in England and at the Maine-based, toxic chemical-investigative outfit Material Research. The report paints a devastating picture of oppression and pollution in the Uyghur region.
The report names Home Depot, among a number of other companies. Home Depot had this to say about it: “We will work to review the information in the report and to take any additional steps necessary to ensure that the product we sell is free from forced labor and fully compliant with all applicable regulations.”
I’m joined today by two of the report’s authors: Laura Murphy is a professor studying forced labor at Sheffield Hallam. And Nyrola Elimä is a researcher at Sheffield Hallam who is also herself Uyghur and grew up in the region.
And one side note for our listeners: We at The Intercept have covered the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghurs and other indigenous groups in a number of articles. We have published stories about surveillance technologies, about a leaked police database, and about the role played by American companies in the region. We have pushed back against corporate executives who downplayed oppression of Uyghurs. And we have noted how China hitched its own campaign against Muslims onto to the War on Terror, and how there were Uyghurs who ended up detained at Guantanamo Bay. And we have discussed the topic on this podcast. But every time one of these articles or episodes comes out, we hear from people who ask why we’re covering this issue. They allege that the plight of Uyghurs is just a right-wing talking point. They say that it has become a tool of the American foreign policy elite amid rising tensions with China.
So I began my conversation by asking Laura how she would respond to that critique:
Laura Murphy: I think that there are many different reasons that politicians and regular people come to this issue, not all of which are reasons I share with them.
There are people who are anti-China, there are people who are xenophobic, and those are not the reasons that we come to this. But I do think that this is not just a concern for the right. This is a concern for everyone. And in particular, for progressive people and other people on the left, we have to realize that this is the most significant human rights violation that we’ve seen in our time. We’re talking about upwards of a million people who are in internment camps, a massive surveillance state that is spreading across China and across the world, questions about privacy and rights that are up for debate because of what China has been able to do to the Uyghur people that has expanded the rights of governments to control their everyday of behaviors of people, especially minority people, and so concerns about minority rights, Indigenous rights, right to land right to work — these things that we care about are at stake right now because China’s getting away with doing it in the Uyghur region.
We care about it for the Uyghurs. And we care about it for the way it appears that China is looking to spread this across China and across the world. And I think that it’s right for us to think about genocide and other forms of exploitation, and abuse, and human rights violations that happen in the United States, or in Canada, or Australia to Indigenous people and the long legacy of slavery and its reach across generations in the United States, for instance, to think about how important it is that we don’t allow these things to happen in the world — in other places, or to encroach on other governments.
And so I think that it’s completely fair to think: Well, let’s look internally and let’s look at what we’re doing in the United States to immigrants or to immigrant children, for instance. Let’s look at how we’re policing black lives. Those things are critical discussions. And I think that we are allies in these fights across the world to ensure the rights of Indigenous people, and people of color, and workers. And that these things need to be allied struggles rather than ones that we pit against each other.
MH: Thanks. That was very well put.
And also there are often U.S. companies involved, right? Your team at Sheffield Hallam University has probably done more than any other group of researchers in the world to draw attention to this issue of forced labor in the Uyghur region. You’ve published reports on solar panels, on cotton, on the role of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. And often U.S. companies or U.S. investors are named in or are complicit in what’s happening in Xinjiang.
LM: Absolutely, some of the biggest name investment firms, and the biggest multinational corporations, are sourcing from the Uyghur region, either directly or indirectly — and with impunity, until now. There has been nothing stopping most of these companies from using Uyghur-forced labor to make prices cheap. And there’s just such an enormous drive to make prices cheaper and to buy things at the lowest possible price that we actually, we feed into a system that allows — that, in fact encourages — a government like China’s to exploit the Uyghur people and to move industry out to the Uyghur region where they can use free labor, practically, and also cheap coal to produce goods that we are buying in the United States and companies know that this is going on. And they have, for years, looked away.
MH: Right. Right.
Well, if I were an executive at a company that sources from China, and an email from one of you, or from someone on your team, showed up in my inbox, I would be very worried.
MH: So you both have a personal connection to this issue. Can you talk a bit about how each of you got into this line of work?
LM: Nyrola, why don’t you start?
Nyrola Elimä: My cousin was in a concentration camp. And now she’s in a prison.
Before they put her in a prison, I think it was around 2019. At that time, I [didn’t know what forced labor was]. But I do know, transferring people to another place or to a factory against their will is wrong. And I know, grabbing land from Uyghur people or Indigenous people is wrong.
So I started to look at something online then I found something. So I sent it to Rian Thum. And I guess that’s how Laura Murphy knows that I have the knowledge of this and I started to look at this.
So one day she approached me and she wants to see what we can do together. So that’s how we eventually ended up publishing three reports.
MH: And Rian Thum is Laura’s partner and a scholar of the region.
NE: That’s correct.
MH: And I probably should have prefaced this by asking: I mean, you grew up in the Uyghur region and you are yourself Uyghur, and then left in what year?
MH: And then, since then, have had this horrible experience of seeing your parents put under house arrest, your cousin sent to prison for basically spurious charges, right? And then the growing repression around them in the region.
NE: Yes, I left the region in 2011. And then, in 2017, after I obtained Swedish citizen[ship], I plan to go back to visit my parents with my, at-the-time, boyfriend. And then my mom wrote something on the paper that said: “Do not come back.”
So, yeah, I never had a chance to go back to Xinjiang since 2011.
And since 2018, they detained my cousin, and then put my parents under house arrest in 2019. So basically, since 2017, or let’s say, basically since 2018, I’m living in hell.
MH: Yeah. I’m so sorry.
Laura, could you talk about how you got into this issue, what your background is a bit?
LM: Sure. I lived in Xinjiang for a short time, about a year in the early 2000s, and I’ve been back several times since then.
And when the crisis in the Uyghur region first started to become apparent to us, at least, in 2017, and we started to hear about people disappearing, we became very concerned. People we knew were disappearing, and were not being able to communicate with their families. And we started to hear from more and more people in the Uyghur region that they were losing touch with their families or being told not to come home, just like the kind of story that Nyrola was just saying.
And so, for some time, I was concerned about this issue, and I was working however I could, putting things up on Twitter, helping to raise awareness. But then when it turned out that there was a massive system of forced labor, that’s where I kicked in. My research is on forced labor. And so I very quickly began to try to learn how to do the research methods that I have been employing for these, that my whole team has been employing for these projects, because my work has always been about worker voice and about survivor narratives and thinking about how people who are forced to work explain those situations themselves.
And in this situation, we don’t have access to the workers, we have no capacity to get on the ground in Xinjiang and actually do worker voice interviews or talk to survivors of the camps or of the forced labor regime. And so we had to find other ways to understand what was going on.
And so what we do — and what Nyrola is a genius at — is just searching the internet for traces that companies and governments leave online, themselves, of the work that they’re doing. They write up explanations of their celebration of how they transformed people from being farmers to being workers — from not wanting to work in a factory to wanting to work in a factory — how they go door-to-door, day after day, to coerce people into leaving their homes, and families, and land, behind to go to work against their will. And so we use those methods, because we can’t talk directly to Uyghur who are working on the ground. And it’s terrible, but this is what we have. And so it’s what we’re using to better understand the situation.
MH: Nyrola, could you talk a bit about the process of documenting those abuses? I mean, the Chinese government euphemistically calls this program the labor transfer scheme, when in fact, it is a mass forced labor effort. But where do workers in the scheme come from? And how are they transported to factories? And then what happens once they’re there?
NE: The Chinese government says — as you probably already see, or [have] heard — that all employment is voluntary, and how this poverty elevation program is doing good, how they lifted Uyghur people out of poverty, and the work transfer helps free rural families from poverty by giving them steady wages, skills, and how they train them in the Chinese language. But during my research, I have been seeing, like repeatedly, multiple times, that the Chinese media acknowledge that.
Workers repeatedly claimed they don’t want to go. They have sick parents [they] need to take care [of], they have a newborn baby, they just married, or they have a family, or some of them already had a job or have a farm they need to plant.
And then when I document all of these government directives, companies, IPO documents or annual report or all of those state media, I saw that Uyghur workers usually they were standing at attention under the flag of China, and those new recruits/employees, they were undergo some training in management, sometimes Chinese culture or [that they are] antiquated — then train them how to love the party, love the country, and somehow, like weirdly, some loving the individual like Xi Jinping. And before this Uyghur worker [is] assigned to the work, they were giving some lectures on eradicating religious extremism, and trained them to become law-abiding workers, and who will embrace their Chinese nationhood.
When I read this kind of news, or when I read the documents, you clearly see there is coercion behind this description. And you will see some of the really weird videos like Uyghur workers washing — let’s say their boss or their superiors — washing their feet. This is absolutely not an ordinary worker orientation. You do not ask someone else to wash your feet, right? And you do not force someone to love the country, love the party, then get a job. You do not force someone to leave their home, leave their wife, leave their husband, whatever, the kids — and coming here to work.
So every time when I see these kinds of weird propaganda articles or government news or the annual report, I will just archive them and save them. And I know eventually I will use it.
MH: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned that many of these state media reports read as very weird. And I was also struck in the reports that you collected by the admission that workers often did not want to be at the factories, that they had left behind their ailing parents, their newborn baby, as you mentioned. And many listeners might find it odd that the state press would so carefully document what, to international observers, is clearly a gross violation of human rights.
So why did they carefully document these abuses? What’s going on with those state press reports?
NE: They believe what they’re doing is good. They don’t even realize they’re exploiting Uyghur people, and they believe this kind of program is indeed what will change Uyghur people’s mindsets. They believe Uyghur people have [a] radical mindset and they’re backward, and they believe this kind of poverty alleviation program, labor transfer program, indeed will change their mindset and change their thinking, turn them to become a better citizen. That’s why they’re carefully documenting these kinds of things. Not only for celebrating, but also [for companies] willing to show their loyalty to the Chinese government. You have this kind of program: Look how we did it!
And everyone is [competing with] each other. And, in fact, by participating in this kind of labor transfer program, they will actually get a reward from the Chinese government. So this is how they will document it, ever since.
But I also see there’s [been] a big transfer since last year, after the Chinese government, Chinese companies realized Western [countries] were taking very seriously this kind of human rights abuse issue. They start to wipe up this kind of document in their annual report or IPO report. And sometimes they will delete everything they have published before.
LM: I just want to put a fine point on what Nyrola is saying here. And what we’re looking at is a massive, rampant racism that pervades discourse about Uyghurs across China. And companies have, for a long time, been resistant to operating in the Uyghur region because corporate executives hold extraordinarily racist ideas about Uyghur people, about what they’re capable of, about their work ethics, about their values, about their religion, and their practices, and their culture — and about women and what women believe and what women should have to believe, and how many children they should have.
I mean, it’s just extremely racist. And it has all of the contours of colonialism and colonial racism that we recognize from the rest of the world. It’s absolutely identifiable from everyday experience in the region. And it’s documented in academic studies, Chinese academic studies sponsored by the state that show that companies have resisted working in that region, or working with Uyghurs, or hiring Uyghurs. There are job descriptions that explicitly exclude ethnic minorities from anything that’s forward-facing, like customer-facing, like anything that’s administrative.
And so companies moving out to the Uyghur region hold these beliefs to be true, and have taken up the responsibility of changing Uyghurs, transforming every aspect of their lives: in their homes, in the way they pray, in the way they eat, the way they talk, who they talk to, what language they speak, how their children are raised, how they plant their own fields, what crops they plant, what books they read — everything! Every tiny little aspect of life is being controlled by these companies at the behest of the central government.
And companies are sending their workers, their Han workers, into Uyghur homes to stay sometimes for weeks at a time even, to monitor, to surveil Uyghur people, and to ensure that they behave in a way that is deemed appropriate by the majority population that has colonized there. So these companies are part of a massive colonial enterprise that has infiltrated the entire life and culture of Uyghur life. Uyghurs are the dominant population of that region. But companies in collaboration with the government are doing the government’s work for the government, essentially — monitoring and controlling Uyghur people and Uyghur lives and Uyghur culture and Uyghur identities.
And it’s all part of this bigger colonial project. And so when they celebrate, when they show that they’ve taken Muhammad away from his home, that they have put him into intensive labor, that they have made him a docile citizen who used to — in one story we saw, like say every single day that he wants to leave but now he’s working and is quiet and is no longer complaining. That’s a story that shows the government that they are playing their role in suppressing the Uyghur people. And that is what is happening in those documents.
And Nyrola is right — you can see it in all these different little aspects of what they’re doing and what they’re claiming to be doing. But the overall mission is a colonial mission. And it’s a repressive mission. And it’s being enacted hand in hand between the government and companies. And, as you said before, U.S. companies, multinational corporations are complicit in this and they’re turning away.
MH: Let’s talk about the report that you just came out with on forced labor in the vinyl flooring industry. That’s a product that many Americans have in their homes or in their offices, but that most people haven’t thought twice about. And yet, it’s literally underneath our feet.
Can you talk about how you came to this particular topic? And why did you look at this specific company, in your report, Zhonghai Chemical Group?
LM: Part of how we determine what we’re going to study is based on what the Chinese government has invested in the Uyghur region. They’ve invested in new energy development, they’ve invested in apparel manufacturing and cotton producing and processing in that region — in terms of cotton, that’s been for decades now. So we look at the things that the Chinese government has put the most emphasis on.
But while we’re doing research, we are often just collecting other companies that we are not sure about, or that didn’t quite make it into the report, and we have profiles of tons of companies in our hard drives that we’re still trying to figure out what to do with. And so Nyrola, tell us about looking into Zhongtai before we even started thinking about PVC and then I’ll pick up how we ended up doing PVC.
NE: I know Zhongtai since 2019. But, at that time, I was not specifically looking at Zhongtai, I was looking at almost every company in Xinjiang. And then, at that time, I was looking at almost every industry, because I realized no matter which industry you look at in the Western world, somehow some Chinese company or Xinjiang company are involved.
So Zhongthai was always on my radar, because every time I searched on the state-sponsored labor transfer program or poverty elevation program, I see Zhongthai’s name. And Zhongtai is there. This company [is] always there. So I always archive, save it; archive it, save it.
And then one day, after we finished this World Bank IFC report, and somehow Laura said: There’s a [indistinct word]. So she asked me to look at the PVC industry. Then I searched: Zhongtai. Yeah.
So I said: Hey, we already have tons of documents of Zhongtai. So that’s how we started.
LM: Yeah. We had asked a group called Material Research to help us, just review our environmental analysis in the International Finance Corporation report that we did where we showed that International Finance Corporation, the development arm of the World Bank, had been investing in companies in the Uyghur region, and in fact, owned equity in one of them. And we were trying to understand their role there — not only in participating in forced labor, but also an environmental damage because we’re starting to see more and more that these companies are not just treating Uyghurs as a docile labor force; they’re treating Leaguers essentially as disposable in all aspects of their lives. So it doesn’t matter if they completely pollute the region or do horrible things to their farmland, or dispossess them of their land. The Uyghur people are essentially being treated as disposable. And so we wanted material research to review the environmental pieces because this was not our area of expertise.
Well, when we did that, he said: Hey, OK, look, how about we trade? You help me understand Zhongtai, and I’ll help you understand this environmental stuff, because he’d been looking at PVC production and the environmental damage there, but he didn’t have access to information about forced labor.
MH: This is your co-author, Jim Vallete.
LM: So this is how Jim Valleet and Material Research teamed up with us, with me and Nyrola, to try to understand what’s going on in the flooring industry. And what we learned was that, in fact, Zhongthai and the seven total factories, four of which are owned by Zhongthai, that are creating PVC in the Uyghur region produced 10 percent of the world’s PVC. And so this was another industry that, in fact, the Chinese government had really invested in moving out to the Uyghur region, again to rely on all the labor there, and also to rely on the coal that’s so abundant in the Uyghur region.
So we were like: OK, let’s do this. Let’s make this report happen. And let’s collaborate.
MH: So yeah, let’s talk about the pollution. I mean, to me, one of the most tragic findings of the report, and there are many of them, but one of them is the intersection of racism with pollution and environmental damage.
And so I focused a bit on the consumer-facing end of the vinyl flooring industry. And the companies often promote it as environmentally friendly, which it is not, they even tout it as liberating for women. But in fact, it has this incredibly dirty production process. Can you talk about that process and how it intersects with the oppression of Uyghurs?
LM: So there are two primary ways that the production of PVC is harmful for the environment and harmful for workers. One is that it’s made using coal, which is extremely dirty, it has an enormous carbon footprint. And what material research and Jim Valett, our co-author, was able to do was to calculate the extraordinary carbon emissions that are produced in the production of PVC in the Uyghur region, because it’s one of the only places in the world where this one process is allowed to continue happening, a process that mixes coal and mercury to create PVC.
And so it has an enormously high carbon footprint. And it consumes more mercury than any other industry — and, in fact, it consumes some huge percentage of the mercury that’s produced in the world each year.
And why this is important is that one, that mercury leeches into the places where it’s being produced; a ton of it is emitted into the air. In other places in the world where this process used to be used, including in my home state of Louisiana. Those places have been declared Superfund sites, and the factories have been closed. But the Chinese government allows this industry and many other extraordinarily polluting industries to move out to the Uyghur region, even as they’re shutting it down in other parts of China. Because, again, the Uyghur region is being treated as a dumping ground for whatever horrible things that the Chinese government has to do, or whatever projects for social control that they want to test out — they do these things in the Uyghur region.
And so we saw stories where people were saying that all of their crops were dying as a result of one of these PVC plants moving in; that they were dying. This is really dangerous stuff. And where did they put it? They put it in the middle of farmland. And it is the desert, but there are farms within a kilometer or two of these plants.
MH: Yeah. And my understanding is while this process is highly polluting wherever it happens, it’s even more polluting the way it’s happening in Xinjiang because of the use of mercury and so forth.
LM: That’s exactly right. And you’re right to say that this is a form of environmental racism. And, again, this goes back to why people on the left should care about this, because it really is a situation of environmental racism in a context of colonialism, where people are being treated as if their lives are not worth what everyone else’s lives are worth. And so I think it’s one of the most devastating things I’ve ever researched, honestly.
MH: Zhongthai makes PVC at its factories, and then that PVC eventually ends up in the flooring that appears on the shelves of, for example, Home Depot and other big box stores in America. Can you talk about how it gets there and where it goes along the way?
LM: All of the PVC that Zhongthai manufacture, they manufacture in the Uyghur region. And then they ship it to two different places on the coast, at least — they probably ship it to many different places. But from our vantage point, we can only see what’s publicly documented. So we’re able to see them shipping it to their own subsidiaries in Hong Kong. They have an import-export business registered there. This is how a lot of companies are moving their goods from the Uyghur region out to the coast.
And then they also sell it to another company unrelated to them called Zhejiang Tianzhen. Zhongtai is the second biggest supplier of PVC to Zhejiang Tianzhen. And then, from the coast, from those two companies, the PVC gets sent to a Chinese-owned company, a company owned by Zhejiang Tianzhen itself, called Jufeng New Materials in Vietnam.
So this company that is ostensibly a Vietnamese company where they manufacture the PVC into flooring tiles, that company is actually Chinese-owned, and it’s actually receiving tons of its PVC from Xinjiang, though not directly. And this is what we’re seeing more and more.
It used to be that you could see a lot of shipments coming out of the Uyghur region. You could see it in shipping records. They would ship directly to the United States, in fact, from Xinjiang. In the last four years, that has declined precipitously as people have become more aware of the crisis in the Uyghur region.
And so what’s happening now is that Xinjiang companies like Zhongtai ship to other companies or their own subsidiaries on the coast, and then to a second country, like Vietnam, or Cambodia, or India, where they manufacture the finished product, so that the packaging says “Made in Vietnam” or “Made in Cambodia.” And so, in this way, the China inputs and the Xinjiang inputs are obscured for the final consumer. They end up on the shelves of companies like Home Depot, and many, many, many of the other major flooring companies in the United States, through this intermediary, this Chinese company that is an intermediary in Vietnam.
This is happening more and more. We see companies setting up intermediary subsidiaries across Southeast Asia because this allows them to move things out of China and out to the rest of the world more easily.
MH: Yeah. And as you said, it’s not just Home Depot. I think your report named dozens of companies that receive flooring from this factory in Vietnam and from other intermediaries.
And even if you go to a small contractor thinking: I’ll just get my flooring from an independent source — there’s a high likelihood that their flooring is also made with the PVC from the Uyghur region. So all of that shows how just very complex this issue is.
Your team, Lauren and Nyrola, was able to trace the flow of PVC from Xinjiang to the United States by carefully analyzing shipping records, by looking at these company reports and by state press reports, as you explained. But companies, when they’re confronted with this evidence, often say: Look, it’s really hard for us to carefully vet our supply chains; vinyl flooring passes through multiple companies, and it’s become harder for us to audit our factories in China for a number of reasons.
And, Laura, you’ve basically told me that you think this is a weak defense and that companies can do a lot more.
LM: I do think that’s a really weak defense. And for two reasons: One, what we’re able to do is identify the risk of Xinjiang inputs going into the final piece of flooring. It’s possible that because not all of Jufeng’s PVC comes from Zhongtai as far as we can tell, that maybe this piece of flooring over here or this particular shipment over there was made with PVC that was not made in the Uyghur region.
However, there’s a lot more PVC being made in the Uyghur region that we can’t trace because it’s being obscured. And we’re underestimating how much PVC is going into this flooring to start with. But companies should be able to identify that risk the same way we do; they can look at the same documents. In fact, they have more evidence that they can collect; they have more power to get information than we do. And so they should be asking their suppliers precisely where every ounce of PVC is coming from to ensure that the raw materials that go into their products are not being mined or manufactured in the Uyghur region. If you’re selling things in the United States, that is now the law.
But the thing is that companies will say: Well, we’re getting stonewalled by our suppliers. They won’t tell us where they buy it from. And I say: Well, first of all, you can often find it in their own corporate annual reports. That’s how we do it. You can look at your customs records to see if they’re buying from that company. That’s how we do it.
We’ve had tons of companies write to us and say: Oh, no, no, no, no. My supplier has told us that they stopped sourcing from x company two years ago.
And I say: Well, here’s a spreadsheet of us customer records, that proves the opposite.
And it takes me two minutes to find that information, right? And they’re just going on the word of their suppliers, written attestations saying: We abhor forced labor — which, of course, everyone says they abhor forced labor. The attestations that say: We have a policy — well, of course you have a policy. That doesn’t mean you actually even know what forced labor is. I think a lot of these companies in China don’t believe that what’s happening in the Uyghur region is forced labor, and have a completely different definition of that because again, of this racism and colonialism that I’ve been talking about.
And then they get told by the companies: Oh, we can’t find out or we won’t find out for you where our goods are coming from.
And they continue to source from those companies. And it seems to me that if a company goes to a supplier and the supplier says: I can’t or won’t tell you where the inputs come from, then you have to find a new supplier. And especially now that the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act went into effect last week, and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act bans any U.S. company from importing goods that were made in whole or in part in the Uyghur region. That’s raw materials, rocks, cotton, anything that can be mined or grown, anything that can be manufactured in that region, is banned from import. It’s critical that companies do that research.
But they keep saying: Oh, well, we’re getting stonewalled — and their response is that the government should change the law, not that they should change their suppliers.
They need to change their suppliers. And it is going to mean some slowing of supply chains, it is going to mean some pretty radical shifts. But it also means the increase in productivity and capacity of companies around the world to produce things outside of a place where there’s the most egregious human rights violations going on, and where most of the manufacturing is being based on coal.
So this is good in general anyway, for the expanded capacity for manufacturing to happen across the world. This is a way of getting out of being held captive when China decides they’re going to do something horrible to people or they’re going to capitalize on exploitation.
LM: Right. I mean, so you mentioned that companies will often say: Well, we’ve gone to our suppliers and they say everything’s fine. I mean, in the process of writing about your report, and doing my own research, I went to Home Depot to ask them about a flooring line called Lifeproof in which some of the styles, some of the Lifeproof styles have a high likelihood of being made with PVC from Zhongtai, as your report showed. And they sent me a letter from their immediate supplier, claiming that the parent company of the Vietnamese factory you talked about had assured them that it was not using PVC from Xinjiang to produce flooring for Home Depot, and so: case closed. [Laughs.] But that is clearly not sufficient, you’re saying.
LM: It’s not only not sufficient. It’s just untrue.
I mean we saw Home Depot say: Well, we got attestations that they were not sourcing from Zhongthai since June 24. And it took me two minutes to look at customs records to see that that was not true.
NE: As a supply chain analyst, I acknowledge it is a bit tricky to trace this stuff, because the biggest problem is the complicity and opacity of the supply chains that run through China. But it’s tricky for us! It is not tricky for the companies.
You purchase stuff; you’re sourcing stuff; you should know where your stuff [is] coming from, and you have much more resources than us, because you are the one who talked to the supplier. Right? Not us. And I also understand that the products can pass through [many] layers, sometimes [many] layers of the companies, sometimes maybe in inland China or outside China. But again, company, you have the responsibility and you have the resources. You can ask your supplier. You can ask where they’re sourcing from.
The thing that amazes me is every single time after we publish a report, you always have some companies — big, big, big companies, big ones — come to us to ask: Could you please tell us what we can do? [Laughs.] I have to be honest. I always feel very amazed, like: I don’t have your resources, but we found it.
NE: You have the resources. What are you doing?
MH: We found it using our internet connection. And some careful research skills.
NE: Yes! They will pay tons of money to [a] consulting company to tell them: Oh, your supply chain is fine. But what they actually should [be] doing is paying the money to those who actually really focus on human rights issues, or those who actually do their job to find our problem in their supply chains.
But, no, companies [are] just [like]: As long as I hide, good! As long as the law doesn’t come to me; as long as there is no report [to] expose us, we’re fine. And then when we greenwash or when we do PR, we always say: Oh, forced labor is a horrible issue!
But it’s just driving me crazy when I see how hypocritic[al] they are.
MH: And what about the role of consumers in all of this? What about people who are listening to this podcast, for example. It’s not sustainable to go rip up your vinyl floors, obviously. And people who are planning to install new floors can look for better alternatives. But what about the rest of us? What can consumers do about forced labor in the Uyghur region?
LM: I think companies need to know that consumers care. I think they believe that we don’t care and that all we care about is that we get goods that are as cheap as humanly possible. And I guess we should put it as: As cheap as inhumanely possible, right? [Laughs.]
So I do think that we should be looking for more sustainable companies. We shouldn’t be just believing when they say: Oh, well, we have this certification or that certification. These things have pretty much all been debunked as legitimate ways of determining if there’s forced labor in your supply chain. And most of them don’t even say that they’re identifying forced labor, most certifications aren’t doing that work. But we’ve come to believe that they are; that they’re protecting us. And they’re not protecting us from everything.
But I think for me, and for a lot of people who are really invested in this issue and really invested in rights — and invested in the planet’s future — I think that buying more things used actually is a big thing that we can do, like really dedicate ourselves to being engaged in recycling and reusing.
But when it comes down to it, consumers can’t trace everything that they buy, right? They can’t do what we do. It takes us a really long time to figure out what’s going on. And it takes some skills. And they shouldn’t be expected to. Government should be protecting consumers from being exposed to complicity enforced labor. Our governments need to be taking action to identify those goods and keep them from coming into the country.
The United States and Canada are the only countries that actually have laws on the books to say that we can’t import these kinds of goods — goods known to be made with forced labor! The EU is looking at a bill for it; I think EU citizens need to step up and say: Look, we want this bill. We expect that our government protects us from buying goods made with forced labor.
Because we can buy all the used things we want, but we do have to buy some things. If I want paprika, for instance, it’s likely coming from the Uyghur region. And yet, I can’t get used paprika. It’s hard to buy even a pair of headphones!
MH: You can’t get used tomatoes.
LM: Right. You can’t get used tomato paste. And even headphones, like it’s hard to buy a pair of cheap used headphones, and it’s very difficult to find a pair that’s not made in China, and that you can really trace the provenance of.
And, again, consumers shouldn’t be responsible for this; companies should be responsible for this, for ensuring that they’re not using forced labor. And companies won’t do it voluntarily. We need government to tell companies that they must trace their supply chains all the way to the raw materials. I think most people believe that companies know that information. And they simply don’t. And it’s convenient for them not to know it. And it’s dangerous for us.
MH: Then you mentioned the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which a key provision of that just came into effect last week, and that essentially requires that customs officers assume that goods originating from Xinjiang are made with forced labor, which is a great step forward. But that doesn’t cover all goods whose supply chains are tainted by forced labor by any means, right? So there’s a lot more to be done, even policy-wise in the United States. Is that right?
LM: I think that’s right. I mean, we do have a thing called the Tariff Act that was passed in 1930, it’s basically unprecedented globally, that bans the import of forced-labor made goods from anywhere. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act puts a very fine point on it and says that we’re absolutely going to be scrutinizing and looking for products that are made in the Uyghur region. We’ve decided that’s a whole region-wide ban on goods made there because the presumption is that all of the goods made there are made with forced labor.
But the Tariff Act and its ability to monitor goods made with forced labor, it’s only been really put into effect for the last few years. And quite difficult, and it’s unusual. Like I said, it doesn’t exist in other parts of the world.
And I think what we’re doing here with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, I think, it’s a really good step, because it’s going to require companies to trace their supply chains. And due diligence mandatory human rights laws that are coming into effect in Europe, we hope soon, will also make them trace their supply chains. And that is important not just for the Uyghur region, but for addressing forced labor globally, and for holding corporations responsible and accountable for their use of these exploitative systems to make products cheap.
MH: Well, thank you both so much for joining us on Intercepted. This was great.
NE: Thanks for having us.
LM: Yeah, it was a great conversation. Yeah. And thanks for doing the incredible work you did to do the research on this piece as well.
MH: Well, likewise. It’s a great report. And you can find it on Sheffield Hallam University’s site; it’s called “Built On Repression.”
[End credits music.]
MH: And that’s it for this episode of Intercepted. Follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast.
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Thanks so much.
Until next time, I’m Mara Hvistendahl.