Senators seek details from U.S. electronics firm on Uyghur labor

·2 min read
General view of manufacturing plant of Universal Electronics Inc in Qinzhou

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of Democratic and Republican U.S. senators wrote to remote-control maker Universal Electronics Inc on Wednesday about concerns the Arizona-based company could be implicated in the mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims in China's Xinjiang region.

The letter cited a Reuters report earlier this month that Universal (UEI) struck a deal with authorities in Xinjiang to transport hundreds of Uyghur workers to its plant in the southern Chinese city of Qinzhou. There, workers live in segregated dormitories, are continuously surveilled by police, and are made to participate in government "education activities," Reuters reported.

"We believe these conditions bear obvious signs of forced labor," said Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Jeff Merkley and Republican Senator Marco Rubio in the letter to UEI Chief Executive Paul Arling.

Menendez chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rubio and Merkley are members of the panel.

"We are especially troubled that Universal Electronics appears to have done little to investigate or remedy the situation," the letter added.

UEI had told Reuters the company employs 365 Uyghur workers at the Qinzhou plant. It said it treated them the same as other workers in China and did not regard any employees as forced labor.

UEI said on Wednesday it had ended its relationship with the staffing company that hired the workers, and said it looked forward to working with the three senators on the questions raised in the letter.

"UEI made the decision last week to end its relationship with the staffing agency that hired these workers based on feedback on how to best secure its supply chain and in light of ongoing regulatory and legislative changes globally," a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The Nasdaq-listed firm, which has sold its equipment and software to Sony, Samsung, LG, Microsoft and other companies, also it does not conduct independent due diligence on where and how its workers are trained in Xinjiang. It said the arrangement is vetted by a third-party agent, which it declined to name, working with the Xinjiang government.

In the letter to Arling, the U.S. senators cited State Department findings that Chinese authorities use threats of physical violence, forcible drug intake, physical and sexual abuse, and torture to force detainees to work in adjacent or off-site factories or worksites.

The letter asked UEI to provide, no later than Nov. 5, information including the text of its 2019 agreement with the Xinjiang government regarding Uyghur laborers, the number of Uyghurs employed in China and documentation to support the company's assertion that none of its labor is forced.

The senators also asked for details of employee training programs related to forced labor and human trafficking, records of audits of facilities in China, and the content of any disclosure to shareholders about the use of transferred Uyghur laborers.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mary Milliken, Jane Wardell and Richard Chang)