German economic engine roars thanks to forced labor: Complaint filed against VW, BMW and Mercedes Benz

21.06.2023

The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), has filed a complaint against VW, BMW and Mercedes Benz with the German Federal Office of Economics and Export Control (BAFA). To date, the companies have not presented supporting documents proving that they are adequately responding to the risk of forced labor in supplier factories in the Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region (Uyghur Region). Since 1 January 2023, companies have been required to comply with human rights due diligence obligations under the German Supply Chain Act, and to take appropriate measures to prevent or eliminate forced labor. The complaint is supported by the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and the Association of Ethical Shareholders Germany.

According to the UN report on the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Autonomous Uyghur Region (Uyghur Region), the Chinese government subjects the Uyghur people  to massive repression and forced labor. A report by Sheffield Hallam University and NomoGaia documents that the entire automotive supply chain in the Uyghur Region is potentially affected by forced labor. According to the report, the three leading German automakers are among the companies that maintain supplier relationships with factories that have exhibited serious indications of engaging in forced labor.

"In the Uyghur Region, forced labor is state-sponsored, while the civilian population is systematically surveilled on a mass scale. Multiple reports have consistently confirmed that independent factory audits are impossible. Therefore, companies cannot rely on audits to fulfill their human rights due diligence. In light of the serious human rights violations at issue here, BAFA must immediately examine how VW, BMW and Mercedes Benz monitor human rights standards within the facilities of their suppliers in the Uyghur Region and work to ensure that they are adhered to," says Miriam Saage-Maaß, Legal Director at ECCHR. "How this is done in the Uyghur Region is a mystery. As long as there are no credible and effective due diligence mechanisms in place, companies should cease their business activities in the Uyghur Region." 

As a monitoring authority, the BAFA must follow up on valid information about violations of the Supply Chain Act, make concrete recommendations, and sanction companies for non-compliance with due diligence obligations if necessary. To do this, it is particularly important that BAFA establishes clear standards for when preventive and corrective measures, such as those stipulated in the Supply Chain Act, are actually "appropriate." How conscientiously BAFA carries out its mandate is critical for the implementation of the law: it is the responsibility of the German agency to ensure that companies comply with the requirements of the Supply Chain Act. It bears this responsibility not only with regard to those affected by human rights violations in supply chains, but also with regard to consumers and the economy as a whole.  

"The adoption of the German Supply Chain Act is an important milestone. Now, this needs to show that it works. Automakers like Mercedes, BMW and Volkswagen have a responsibility to ensure that they do not profit from Uyghur forced labor," says Dokun Isa, President of the World Uyghur Congress.
In 2021, ECCHR filed criminal complaints against European fashion brands and textile companies in Germany, France and the Netherlands, as they also allegedly benefit from forced labor in the Uyghur Region. You can find more information here about ECCHR's legal interventions in the field of corporate responsibility and human rights violations in supply chains.

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