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U.S Official: China’s Government is Hiding Labor and Human Rights Violations

A cotton factory in Xinjiang. Dominique Patton/REUTERS
A cotton factory in Xinjiang. Dominique Patton/REUTERS

The Chinese government is undermining workplace audits in China to hide human and labor rights violations, according to a U.S. Labor Department official.

Thea Lee, the Labor Department’s deputy undersecretary for international affairs, testified to Congress on Tuesday that workplace audits in China are extremely unreliable.

Audits are often announced ahead of time, which gives managers time to hide violations. Managers can prepare their facility for inspection, falsify payment records to hide illegal overtime, and pressure workers to lie to auditors.

When workers are interviewed about working conditions, “they can’t imagine that they can answer that question honestly,” Lee says. “They anticipate that there will be trouble.”

Conditions are particularly bad in Xinjiang, the region of China home to much of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority. All audits in Xinjiang are conducted with government oversight, making it impossible to ensure workers won’t face reprisals for speaking out. Workers are surveilled constantly and auditors are harassed and detained.

Even if American businesses operating in China want an accurate report on labor conditions, new laws passed by Beijing have made it “essentially illegal” for U.S. companies to conduct proper audits, according to Lee.

“The business community needs to be aware that any audits, and frankly any business operations undertaken inside China, carry heightened labor and human rights risks,” Lee said.

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