Was your car made using slave labour?

Last week European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyden, announced a probe into China’s electric vehicle industry which apparently have benefitted from massive state subsidies. But it’s not only such subsidies that should worry us – production in the Chinese car industry ignores human rights and climate change, and the European car industry is complicit.

The global shift in manufacturing from Europe and North America to Asia has been well-documented. As factories have closed in the UK and the EU, the same companies have built up their manufacturing capability in China as well as trained and created a network of local suppliers to provide key components for their final products. This has been particularly marked in the car industry and is supported strategically by the Chinese government. The country is now one of the world’s top auto part suppliers, exporting upwards of USD 45 Billion (milliards) of products in 2021.

But at what cost? A recent report by the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University highlights the issue and focuses on the resources that the government in China has dedicated to moving the highly polluting and energy-intensive processing of raw materials essential to car manufacture to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Kennedy Centre report highlights that practically every major traditional automotive electric vehicle manufacturer has used products coming from companies using forced labour.

In many cases, the car manufacturers are not directly involved. They purchase the parts from so-called “Tier One” suppliers, who themselves rely on further “Tier Two” suppliers and other companies down the supply chain to produce the components. The report highlights three areas of raw material production (steel, aluminium, copper) and their applications in batteries for EVs, electronics, as well as interiors to show how these products are incorporated into cars that are sold onto the UK market.

Our parliamentary party has highlighted the abuses taking part in the region. Layla Moran highlighted the human rights abuses in the region during her Autumn Conference 2020 online speech, and she also criticised the Foreign Secretary Cleverly’s visit to China last week, calling on him to think about the signal being sent to China.

Together with Cleverly’s call for more foreign investment from China in the UK and the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on how China’s ambition at a global level “poses a national security threat,” it is important that we as a party urgently adopt policy on how to deal with China. I’ll be backing an emergency motion at our Autumn Conference highlighting these issues.

* Robert Harrison is a board advisor for several venture backed companies. He holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and an MSc in Physics as well as being a qualified patent attorney. He is currently Acting Chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group as well as Treasurer of LibDems in Europe.

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3 Comments

  • Steve Trevethan 18th Sep '23 - 1:39pm

    If a company buys a product, how is it not involved directly?

    If a company buys a product without knowing details of its provenance, might it be failing in its social and commercial duties?

    Might some of the responsibility for the rise of the Chinese automotive industry lie with “Western” automobile companies who seem to have sought cheaper labour away from their own shores?

    How do we consider, compare and try to improve the conditions of those, including children, whose lives have been shortened and/or diminished by harsh governmental decisions, including those outside China, such as the suffering Libyans?

  • Martin Gray 18th Sep '23 - 2:53pm

    The West has outsourced a significant amount of it’s manufacturing base to China – with that went it’s commitment in reducing emissions…. Nothing gets in the way of making a buck – they are not interested in how workers are treated in the Far East, as all we get is a meaningless HR statement about adhering to values and ethics …

  • Paul Barker 18th Sep '23 - 5:38pm

    If we want to be sure that the goods we buy aren’t made with Slave Labour then we need to stop buying things made, or partly made in China.
    We means both we as individuals & collectively through Local Councils for example.

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