One of the oldest and most well-known iPhone suppliers has been accused of using forced Muslim labor in its factories, according to documents uncovered by a human rights group, adding new scrutiny to Apple’s human rights record in China.
Lens Technology is one of at least five companies connected to Apple’s supply chain that have now been linked to alleged forced labor from the Xinjiang region, according to human rights groups. Lens Technology stands out from other Apple component suppliers because of its high-profile founder and long, well-documented history going back to the early days of the iPhone.
“Our research shows that Apple’s use of forced labor in its supply chain goes far beyond what the company has acknowledged,” said Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project.
Apple spokesman Josh Rosenstock said the company has confirmed that Lens Technology has not received any labor transfers of Uighur workers from Xinjiang. He said Apple earlier this year ensured that none of its other suppliers are using Uighur labor transferred from Xinjiang.
“Apple has zero tolerance for forced labor,” Rosenstock said. “Looking for the presence of forced labor is part of every supplier assessment we conduct, including surprise audits. These protections apply across the supply chain, regardless of a person’s job or location. Any violation of our policies has immediate consequences, including possible business termination. As always, our focus is on making sure everyone is treated with dignity and respect, and we will continue doing all we can to protect workers in our supply chain.”
Lens Technology didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In response to faxed questions from The Post, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing called forced labor in China “nonexistent” and accused people with “ulterior motives” of fabricating it. It said a number of companies had hired auditors to conduct investigations, which “confirmed the nonexistence of ‘forced labor.’ ” It did not name the companies.
Tesla didn’t respond to a request for comment. Amazon spokeswoman Samantha Kruse declined to comment. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Apple products include thousands of components that are made by suppliers all around the world. While some suppliers are small or work for Apple through middlemen, Apple has a much closer relationship with its major suppliers such as Lens. The company has a supplier code of conduct and says it assessed 1,142 suppliers in 49 countries in 2019, ensuring that good labor conditions are upheld. Rosenstock said Lens was one of the audited suppliers. Apple publishes an annual progress report documenting its results.
Still, Apple has faced criticism for its labor practices in the past, particularly in China. It has also recently spread to India, where Apple has been building up its manufacturing base. Thousands of workers gathered outside Apple supplier Wistron earlier this month in Southern India to protest working conditions. Rosenstock said Wistron has been put on probation.
“Apple claims to take extraordinary measures to monitor its supply chain for such problems, but the evidence we found was openly available on the Internet,” said Paul of the Tech Transparency Project.
Xinjiang, in the far reaches of Western China bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Muslim-majority countries, is facing a brutal crackdown by China’s government, which has placed more than a million Muslims in concentration camps or forced them to work in factories making everything from cotton to soft drinks to electronics.
Uighur workers transferred from Xinjiang to other regions of China are often, if not always, forced or coerced, according to human rights groups and academics who have conducted interviews with people who have escaped the system. The Chinese government does not permit human rights groups to enter the country to interview laborers or observe conditions. The documents unearthed by Tech Transparency Project don’t detail the working conditions in Lens Tech factories.
“There’s really no way to give informed consent in Xinjiang any longer because the threat of extrajudicial detention is so extreme,” said Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies Uighur migrants. Byler said the Chinese government’s use of forced labor in the Xinjiang region has long been established, but has stepped up since 2017, when the most recent crackdown on Uighurs began.
Apple, among other companies, has dispatched lobbyists to Capitol Hill regarding legislation that would hold U.S. companies accountable for using forced labor from the region, according to Apple’s lobbying disclosure forms. The lobbyists are trying to water down the bill, according to congressional staffers.
Paul said the alleged use of forced labor in Apple’s supply chain “may explain why the company is lobbying against a bill now before Congress that would sanction companies for their involvement in human rights abuses in China.” Rosenstock said it is “false to suggest we ‘dispatched lobbyists’ to Capitol Hill.”
Zhou Qunfei, Lens Technology’s founder and CEO, rose to prominence in 2015, when the company she founded from the ground up went public. She told the New York Times at the time that her big break came in 2003, when Motorola executives called her out of the blue and offered her a chance to supply glass screens for the upcoming Razr V3. When the iPhone launched in 2007, Lens Technology won the contract to supply the glass screen covering.
It was a remarkable rise for a young woman who hailed from a poor village and began as a factory worker herself. Zhou used her modest savings to build a lens supply business, becoming one of the world’s few female self-made billionaires. Forbes estimates Zhou’s net worth at $15.2 billion, making her the world’s richest self-made woman and putting her just shy of the estate of Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, according to Forbes.
With its stock more than doubling over the last year, Lens Technology is now worth more than $130 billion. It has around 100,000 workers within its 16-company corporate family and it has several factories producing glass for the consumer electronics industry, according to its public filings.
The Chinese government has helped facilitate the transfer of workers out of Xinjiang to work in electronics factories all over China. The government has billed the transfers as part of a poverty alleviation effort spearheaded by the country’s central leadership.
The transfers are sometimes organized by regional chambers of commerce, which operate as quasi-governmental agencies, and labor recruitment companies that act as intermediaries and arrange for workers to be sent to specific factories.
Some Uighur workers have told human rights groups that they were given a choice between taking a job in a far-flung factory or being sent to a detention center. In some cases, workers have said that when they “accept” the job, they live in heavily guarded campuses and are rarely allowed to leave. In the evenings, when their shifts end, the Uighur workers say they are forced to take lessons in communist propaganda. Whether the Uighurs are paid, and exactly how much, is unclear.
Some of these labor transfers sent workers to Lens Technology campuses in Hunan, according to an August 2019 article in the Global Times of China.
The article says the transfer was arranged by the Xinjiang-Suzhou Chamber of Commerce and was painted as a positive effort to offer jobs to people who are unemployed. But the text of the article uses language that human rights groups say reveals the workers might not be going by choice. The Chamber of Commerce highlighted the use of its “paramilitary” style of managing the workers to keep them “organized, disciplined, regulated,” according to the article.
The Xinjiang-Suzhou Chamber of Commerce article refers to “management cadres” accompanying Uighur workers for “logistics support.” According to Byler, “cadres” is often a bureaucratic term for government officials who oversee the political education of the Uighur workers and enforce bans on religious practice. “The cadres have the authority to send people back to Xinjiang, place them in camps,” Byler said.
China analysts say the Xinjiang-Suzhou Chamber of Commerce has arranged labor transfers in the past, and its leaders have floated the idea of turning the transfers into a business.
In February, Uighur workers from Xinjiang destined for a Lens Technology factory were among the first passengers to fly on a chartered flight within China after the pandemic shut down civil aviation, according to an article highlighted in the Tech Transparency Project’s report. The China Southern Arlines flight from Hotan to Hunan was covered by a Chinese news agency focused on the airline industry.
“Although they are young, most of them have two years of experience,” the article says. “In the new year, I still want to continue to work hard, learn more skills, earn more money, so that my family can live a good life out of poverty and let parents rest assured,” one of the workers is quoted as saying in the article. Human rights workers say news articles like these are the result of coordinated government propaganda.
A photograph of the Uighur laborers on the plane, wearing masks, shows them holding the “thumbs up” sign, alongside airline staff, who all appear to be Han Chinese, the majority ethnic group in the country.
Labor transfers to Lens Technology go back at least two years, according to the recently uncovered documents. A notice from the Turpan Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, posted on a Chinese job recruitment site in 2018, announced the planned transfer of 1,000 “surplus urban and rural labor” to Lens Technology. The notice instructs local towns and villages to publicize the effort in order to get voluntary sign-ups. To get a job, applicants must pass a “political review,” according to the posting, carried out by local police and approved by the National Security Brigade.
As part of the review, the notice says, information on Uighur workers will then be sent to the Integrated Joint Operations Platform. According to Human Rights Watch, the Integrated Joint Operations Platform is a database operated by the Chinese government that stores surveillance data and helps authorities determine whether Uighurs should be sent to detention facilities. Byler said it is the first time he has seen direct evidence that the Integrated Joint Operations Platform has been used in China’s “forced labor scheme,” as he calls it.
In another alleged propaganda video, posted online in 2019, Uighur workers are seen attending a National Day celebration in front of a red banner that reads “All Workers Sent by the Kashgar Region Human Resources and Social Security Bureau to Lens Tech: Welcome National Day — Sing Red Songs. Be grateful to The Party.” Kashgar is a city in the Xinjiang region.
Much of the evidence detailing which factories receive allegedly forced labor from Xinjiang comes from webpages that are publicly available in China, but can be difficult to find. China has begun taking steps to limit access to government information from outside the country, human rights groups say.
In state media and other official channels, the Chinese government has announced transfers of workers from Xinjiang to factories outside the region, often specifying the specific factories where the laborers are destined to work. Researchers say the articles are sometimes taken down before they are discovered by human rights groups. In recent years, as human rights groups have used the postings as evidence, the government has been posting less material, researchers said.
A March report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that implicated four Apple suppliers in alleged forced labor transfers relied in part on publicly available documents.
That report detailed labor transfers to factories owned by O-Film, Hubei Yihong Precision Manufacturing and Highbroad Advanced Material, all manufacturers with ties to Apple’s supply chain. O-Film appears on Apple’s supplier list. Hubei is a subsidiary of Dongguan Yidong Electronic, which listed Apple as a customer on its website. Highbroad’s annual report lists Apple supplier BOE Technology Group as its biggest customer. The Australian report also alleged a transfer of Uighur laborers to Foxconn’s “iPhone city,” the largest assembly plant for iPhones. Rosenstock said Hubei and Highbroad have no connection to Apple’s supply chain.
In a previous report, the Tech Transparency Project alleged the cotton T-shirts worn by Apple Store employees were also sourced from forced labor in Xinjiang. Rosenstock has said Apple doesn’t receive shirts from Xinjiang, but would not say whether the company ever did in the past.
This article has been updated with additional comment from Apple.
Lily Kuo contributed to this article.