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A US Senate probe has uncovered likely forced labour in the supply chains of Chinese-made BMW cars.

Some 8,000 models of the BMW Mini Cooper, manufactured in China, used electronic parts from Sichuan Jingweida Technology Group (JWD), one of 41 companies on the US’ Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act (UFLPA) entity list.

Companies on the list are presumed by the US government to be manufactured by Uyghur forced labour and are banned from entering the US.

JWD’s products were added to this list in December 2023 and two months later, Volkswagen notified authorities that its cars built in China for the US market contained a component called a LAN transformer, produced by ‘tier 3’ supplier, JWD.

The parts were procured by a ‘tier 2’ supplier, Bours Inc., and provided to ‘tier 1’ supplier, Lear International.

The Senate Finance Committee report contends that BMW also had knowledge of the JWD parts in its Chinese-built Mini Coopers since early January.

However, BMW continued to import some 8,000 of the vehicles until April in violation of the law.

BMW has since pledged to replace the parts.

“Automakers… overwhelmingly rely on questionnaires, self-reporting and limited audits of tier 1 suppliers to maintain visibility of their supply chains and determine whether their goods comply with US law… the chain of self-assessments and surveys are expected to cascade through twelve or more tiers of suppliers,” the Senate Finance Committee (SFC) report said.

“A single inadvertent or bad-faith omission can conceal exposure to forced labour. In the Chinese market, there is little to prevent obfuscation, signing of inconsequential “Codes of Conduct,” or false self-assessments by sub-suppliers,” it added.

The murkiness of automotive supply chains has left carmakers with considerable exposure to forced labour and slavery, a 2022 Sheffield Hallam University report Driving Force: Automotive Supply Chains and Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, revealed, “practically every major traditional automotive and electric vehicle manufacturer has significant exposure to forced labour in the Uyghur Region”.

These also include lithium-ion batteries, of which China maintains more than 75% of the global production share.

If tracing electronic components were not difficult enough, another recent report by Human Rights Watch, Asleep at the wheel: Car companies’ complicity in forced labour in China, contends that metals used in Chinese-built cars, such as aluminium, are also mined and smelted using forced labour.

China has prosecuted what it calls a ‘People’s war on terror’ in the majority Uyghur Xinjiang region since 2014, which involves breaking imprisonment, torture, and breaking up of families of Uyghurs, suppressing Islamic practices, and operating forced labour, and concentration camps. China denies this.

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