Flooring companies and investment funds linked to forced Uyghur labor in toxic plastic factories, new report shows


JUNE 14, 2022 – Thousands of Uyghur people have been forced to work in extremely polluting factories that produce plastics used in building materials sold by major US companies, according to an investigative report by three leading human rights and environment researchers published today.

The supply chains of the world’s largest home improvement stores and flooring brands are at very high risk of being tainted by forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR or Uyghur Region), a region where experts say the Chinese government has perpetrated a widespread campaign of repression, internment, surveillance, and forced labor.  The XUAR-based PVC company operating the plants receives significant investments from the Vanguard Group, Dimensional Fund Advisors, BlackRock, and many other leading investment funds. Companies named in the report as customers of the flooring made of this PVC  include retailer Home Depot, and flooring industry leaders Armstrong, Congoleum, Mannington, Mohawk, Shaw and many others.

Built on Repression: PVC Building Materials’ Reliance on Labor and Environmental Abuses in the Uyghur Region, documents the extraordinary human and global environmental impacts of this supply chain. 

Companies in the U.S. sell floors assembled in a massive factory in Vietnam (Jufeng New Materials) that is a subsidiary of a Chinese company. Some are branded “eco-friendly.” These contain a type of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Flooring sold in the U.S. appears to consumers to be made in Vietnam, but much of the PVC that the company uses is made in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in plants that have been linked to human rights abuses.

Jufeng uses PVC made by state-owned Xinjiang Zhongtai, which operates four PVC plants in the Uyghur region. Another company owned by the government of China,  Xinjiang Tianye, runs the second largest PVC factory in the world. Combined, seven PVC plants in the Uyghur region produce 10% of the world’s PVC. 

The report focuses on the Zhongtai Group, which has transferred more than 5,000 citizens deemed to be ‘surplus laborers’ and whose PVC is in flooring and pipes recently installed in homes, schools and hospitals worldwide.

Built on Repression is a collaborative investigation by Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Center for International Justice, a leading center for social justice and human rights research, practice, and pedagogy, and Material Research L3C, a charitable and educational company based in Maine, USA.

“Despite growing awareness of the atrocities being committed in the Uyghur Region, products made with forced labor continue to pour across international borders,” said Laura Murphy, a professor at Sheffield Hallam. “The Zhongtai Group alone has transferred more so-called ‘surplus laborers’ than practically any other company,” she notes.

Prof. Murphy and co-author Nyrola Elimä are world leading experts on supply chain connections to Uyghur forced labor. Elimä, a researcher with the Helena Kennedy Center for International Justice, poured through hours of Chinese-state media reports. “Chinese officials boast about how many workers they force to work in their factories against their will,” she said. “Their own reports show how the Zhongtai Group directly engages in labor transfers and ideological programming, and they celebrate doing so.”

PVC from the region flooded global markets during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state kept running these plastics factories even while it shut down much of the country’s industries during the pandemic, and said it was doing so to capitalize upon the region’s position in the global marketplace, which meant treating Uyghur workers as disposable.

Unlike most of the world’s industry, PVC plants in the Uyghur region use coal and mercury to make the plastic. The seven PVC factories in the XUAR release an estimated 49 million tons of greenhouse gas per year. For comparison, 140 plastics factories in the United States reported releasing a combined 114 million tons of greenhouse gas in 2020. The Xinjiang Tianye factory in Shihezi is thought to be the most polluting plastics factory in the world, with an estimated 16.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emitted per year. The estimated 340 tons of mercury consumed for PVC production in the XUAR accounts for 15% of all mercury produced worldwide. In addition to their global impacts, local residents have seen their rural, traditional communities become “polluted wastelands.” 

“PVC flooring companies in the U.S. are leading purveyors of greenwash, the art of pretending your industry is something it isn’t,” said co-author Jim Vallette, president of Material Research. “They are selling cheap floors that look like wood or stone but are made from coal that is turned into plastic in the XUAR using mercury catalysts. They are profiting from forced labor and extreme pollution in the Uyghur region. The biggest flooring companies in the world don’t bother to tell their consumers anything about this, even as they collaborate with green building advocates on so-called transparency and climate neutrality initiatives.”

Next week, a new U.S. law will prohibit further imports of all products with any XUAR content. The co-authors urged companies to trace their supply chains to identify connections to the Uyghur Region and to extract themselves from high risk contracts. 

In recent months, U.S. Customs officials have detained shipments in other industries they have determined are sourcing products made with Uyghur forced labor.  (There are no comparable restrictions elsewhere in the world.) 

The report and additional resources are available at https://www.shu.ac.uk/helena-kennedy-centre-international-justice/research-and-projects/all-projects/built-on-repression

For further information:

Co-authors

Laura Murphy: Email: laura.murphy [at] shu.ac.uk

Jim Vallette: Email: jimvallette [at] materialresearch.org.

Spanish-speaking media inquiries: Verónica Odriozola (Argentina), veronicaodriozola [at] materialresearch.org

French- and Italian-speaking media inquiries: Anna Pujol Mazzini (France), apujolmazzini [at] gmail.com