Interview: ‘You have to put people over profit’


Serena Oberstein discusses the new Uyghur Forced Labor Database her organization created.

A worker packages spools of cotton yarn at a Huafu Fashion plant, as seen during a government organized trip for foreign journalists, in Aksu in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 20, 2021.

The U.S. enacted the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in December 2021 to strengthen an existing ban on the importation of goods made wholly or in part with forced labor from China’s Xinjiang region. The law, which took effect on June 21, requires U.S. companies that import goods to prove that they have not been manufactured at any stage with Uyghur forced labor.

On Wednesday, Jewish World Watch (JWW), a nonprofit humanitarian organization dedicated to helping survivors of genocide and mass atrocities around the world, launched an online database listing Western companies in the automotive, energy, fashion, food and technology sectors that have been implicated as benefiting from Uyghur forced labor, so concerned consumers can avoid purchasing their products. Serena Oberstein, JWW’s executive director, spoke with RFA Uyghur reporter Nuriman Abdureshid about the Uyghur Forced Labor Database and what the group hopes to accomplish with it. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: What motivated JWW to create the Uyghur Forced Labor Database?

Oberstein: What we’re hearing coming out of East Turkestan [Xinjiang] about Uyghurs being taken in the night, having their heads shaved, being put on trains, and especially the companies that are using Uyghur forced labor, also has direct ties to the Holocaust. I remember mentioning one of them and someone said, ‘Oh, what have they said? Do they know?’ And I said, ‘Yes, they know. They have a factory. They signed a contract with the Chinese Communist Party.’ And they’ve made a public statement where they’ve said that as long as there’s a profit to be made, essentially they’re going to be there. Having this type of database where you can see that companies know exactly what they’re doing or they know where in their supply chain they’re using Uyghur forced labor and have chosen not to stop and chosen to be complicit. It’s really important information for consumers. 

RFA: Tell us more about the database.

Oberstein: The Uyghur Forced Labor Database is a project detailing how global companies are complicit in Uyghur forced labor, and it’s the most extensive [database] to date. It brings to light more than 600 national and international companies and their reported links to Uyghur forced labor in the ongoing genocide against the Uyghur people in East Turkestan. We highlight a number of companies by industry, but you can also go in and search if there’s information available. It’s something that we launched in the days immediately after the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. What we know is that the [U.S.] entity list that’s being utilized is not extensive enough. Not only do we really want individuals and consumers to use this database to make more ethical decisions about the companies they support, but also we’re really hoping to share this with the U.S. government and that they utilize it and understand that this information is available. We will link to all of the studies and investigative reports that have thoroughly mapped how these companies are complicit in genocide. We hope that first and foremost, it’s an educational tool, but that it becomes a tool that empowers people to stop using products made with Uyghur slaves and by Uyghur slaves. 

RFA: Have any companies contacted you about the database?

Oberstein: No, not yet. We just released it Wednesday afternoon, so we definitely haven’t heard from anybody yet. We hope that with the implementation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that companies will start to come off of this database and we’ll update people. We want to support companies [in making] more ethical decisions. The purpose of this isn’t to necessarily tell [consumers] not to buy a product; it’s to say that they have an obligation to do the right thing. They have an obligation to be ethical in their decision making, and here is information so that you can make the right decision. 

RFA: What do you want to say to companies that have supply chains related to Uyghur forced labor?

Oberstein: We feel like you always have to put people over profit. … When I talk to companies and they say, ‘Well, we don’t want to lose our market share in China,’ it’s horrific to me. What about the millions of people who are being interned? What about the people who are dying? What about the children who are growing up without parents who are being ‘reeducated’ and indoctrinated? That’s what we care about. That’s what should be our priority. We worked with someone a few months ago, whose family helped start the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and he had a factory in East Turkestan and went to go visit it a few years ago. When he saw what was happening, he said to himself, ‘I can’t ethically do that,’ and he closed his factory and reopened one in Mexico. So, we know that it’s possible, that you don’t need to rely on forced labor in your supply chain and that you can ethically source your labor. You have to act. You have to put people over profit. 

RFA: Is there anything else you want to add? 

Oberstein: I hope that people use [the database] and share it with their friends. If people have questions about it, if they think that there is information missing, they should definitely feel free to reach out to us and say, ‘We know this company is doing it.’ We know that there is knowledge of this involved in [a] company that maybe we missed. We would welcome that kind of feedback. We hope that what comes of it is that this is a first step. Now that people have the information, they can start to make educated decisions. But this is [also] so that companies know that we’re watching, and we see what they’re doing, and that we expect more from them. 

Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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