Apple supplier Lens Technology accused of using forced labor in China

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Apple supplier Lens Technology has joined a growing list of companies that have been accused of using forced labor in its manufacturing facilities.

According to documents uncovered by the Tech Transparency Project and shared with The Washington Post, "thousands" of Uighur workers from the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang were sent to work for Lens Technology.

An Apple spokesperson denied the report, stating in a statement that Lens Technology "has not received any labor transfers of Uighur workers from Xinjiang." He added that the company has a "zero tolerance" policy for forced labor.

"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," the spokesperson said.

The Tech Transparency Project, however, cast doubt on Apple's claims of close supply chain monitoring, alleging that the evidence of forced labor was found openly on the internet.

For example, one article from a Chinese news agency reported that Uighur workers being sent to a Lens Technology plant were among the first passengers to fly on a chartered flight after China shut down civil aviation during the pandemic. Another article detailed how labor transfer programs sent workers to Lens Technology facilities in Hunan.

The documents that the Tech Transparency Project found don't the specific detail labor conditions in Lens Technology facilities.

Lens Technology, which has about 100,000 workers, has a long history of supplying lenses and related glass components to Apple for use in devices like the iPhone. The company also supplies lenses to other technology firms, such as Tesla and Amazon.

The company joins several other Apple supply partners said to have benefited from forced labor in China. Earlier in 2020, Apple reportedly dropped supplier O-Film after it was accused of human rights violations.

Apple says it has been conducting ongoing reviews of its supply chain. Those probes, the company said, have discovered no evidence of human rights abuses.

The Cupertino tech giant in November was said to be one of several companies lobbying against a bill that would prevent U.S. companies from importing goods made through forced Chinese labor. Its proposed changes to the legislation include keeping supply chain information private and extended a compliance deadline.

A report from earlier in December alleged that Apple has ignored labor issues in its supply chain.

The predominantly Muslim region of Xinjiang has been under a brutal crackdown by the Chinese government, which has forced more than a million Uighur Muslims into concentration camps or sent them to work for companies in poor working conditions. The Chinese government also bars human rights organizations from entering the country to observe labor conditions or interview laborers.

Although China bills the worker transfer program as a poverty mitigation measure, Uighur workers have told activist groups that they were given a choice between taking a job at a far-off facility or being sent to a detention center. Workers that have accepted "jobs" at facilities are reportedly kept in guarded campuses and are not allowed to leave. Whether they're paid, and how much, isn't clear.

Apple's full statement on the matter is as follows.

Apple has zero tolerance for forced labor. 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.