Volkswagen announced that an independent audit of its joint venture site in Xinjiang, China, conducted by the German firm Loening Human Rights & Responsible Business GmbH, found no signs of forced labor. This outcome emerges amidst heightened global concern over alleged human rights abuses in the region.
The audit, led by Markus Loening, former human rights commissioner for Germany, entailed comprehensive on-site assessments, including employee interviews, and reviews of employment contracts and salary records for the Urumqi plant's 197 employees. Loening's firm, renowned for its expertise in human rights due diligence, underscored the complexity and challenges associated with data collection in China. Despite these obstacles, the audit was thorough, with a focus specifically on the Urumqi plant employees.
The Urumqi plant, a joint venture between Volkswagen and SAIC Motors, previously responsible for assembling the Santana model, has shifted its operations. According to Loening, the facility now handles technical commissioning and deliveries within the region. He also noted that the employees at the plant receive above-average compensation, a significant detail in the context of the labor conditions under review.
The findings of this audit are crucial given the international attention on Xinjiang, where numerous rights groups have documented widespread abuses, including mass forced labor in detention camps - allegations consistently denied by Beijing. Volkswagen's involvement in the region had previously raised concerns among its investors, leading to the demand for an independent audit. The global index provider MSCI had marked Volkswagen with a 'red flag' in its social issue category last November due to the Xinjiang allegations, prompting some investors to reevaluate their stakes in the company.
The audit was conducted in collaboration with two Chinese lawyers from a Shenzhen-based firm, although their identities remain confidential. This level of discretion and the detailed nature of the inquiry were likely measures to ensure the accuracy and integrity of the audit process.
Loening, with his background as a human rights commissioner and a federal parliament member for Germany's Free Democrat party, brought significant credibility to the investigation. His comparison of the living situation of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang to the apartheid regime in South Africa, made in a 2021 Deutschlandfunk interview, highlights his awareness of the gravity of human rights issues.
This audit represents a significant step in addressing the global concerns regarding labor practices in Xinjiang. While the findings provide some reassurance about the conditions at Volkswagen's Urumqi plant, the broader issue of human rights in Xinjiang continues to be a matter of international debate and concern. Volkswagen, like many global companies operating in sensitive regions, faces the ongoing challenge of balancing business interests with ethical and human rights considerations.