The Volkswagen Group wants to stick to the site even after a visit by its China board member Ralf Brandstätter to the controversial plant in the Xinjiang region. "Of course we are aware of the critical reports, we take it very seriously," said the manager, commenting on reports that there was systematic oppression of Muslim Uyghurs in the western province. "But we have no evidence of human rights violations in this plant - that hasn't changed after my visit."
Brandstätter traveled to the city of Ürümqi for two days in mid-February to look around the local factory. "I didn't find any contradictions," said Volkswagen's China boss. "I have no reason to doubt the information and my impressions. Regardless of that, of course we're still looking."
There are only limited options because a subsidiary of the joint venture, which is not controlled by VW, operates the plant with the Chinese partner SAIC, said the group's head of external relations, Thomas Steg: "Decisions can only be made by mutual agreement - there are existing contracts. With our With our partner SAIC, we agree that basic values and the law must be respected and protected in joint ventures."
Demand for cars estimated to be high
The factory project in Ürümqi, which started in 2012, was interesting because the demand for cars in the structurally weak region was estimated to be high. Steg explained that the climate had changed over time - also because the Chinese government's policy in the autonomous Uyghur region had changed after a terrorist attack, for example. According to some non-governmental organizations, there are said to be re-education camps in Xinjiang.
A report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last year spoke of serious violations in the area. "We are indeed deeply concerned by the finding in this report and have looked at it very carefully," said Steg. "We have never ignored the situation or taken it lightly, but have repeatedly made it clear that the Volkswagen Group does not tolerate forced labor or other forms of discrimination."
No differences to other works?
Brandstätter described his own picture: "The plant is no different from other plants of the joint venture companies in China. I got to know a committed team. A good working atmosphere is ensured, also through targeted integration measures. In addition, there is obviously great importance to a good get-together." Brandstätter took over the post of head of China last summer and emphasized at the beginning of this year: "We do not tolerate forced labor, not even at suppliers or recruiters." There are regular spot checks.
At present, VW and SAIC do not produce their own vehicles in Ürümqi, but technically put into operation vehicles supplied from other factories. According to Brandstätter, by 2023 there will be around 10,000 units, which will then be distributed to regional dealers. Almost 240 employees are currently working at the site - significantly fewer than before the Corona crisis. Because there is no local supplier structure, there is currently no need for more detailed analyzes of the working conditions at specific, individual suppliers.
Brandstätter said he took a detailed tour of the plant. There was also a longer conversation with seven employees - among them Uyghurs and representatives of other groups such as Kazakhs and Han Chinese. Government or administration representatives were not present.
Many employees have been employed for years
29 percent of the employees in Ürümqi belong to minorities, 17 percent are Uyghurs. "The various population groups are roughly equally distributed across production, technical professions and management." According to data from the partner SAIC, three quarters of the employees have been employed there for eight years or longer.
The VW works council emphasized that a formal lack of direct action on the processes in the plant "does not release the group from confronting the issues and actively positioning them". In general, the issue of human rights in China is viewed with great concern. "The facts that the world community has in this regard about Xinjiang are unmistakable," said the employee representative in Wolfsburg. The management must justify the function of the site precisely. "So it must be all the more clear what role the Ürümqi plant plays and to what extent it helps to let our values radiate beyond the factory fence."
According to Steg, the existing contracts with SAIC there will run until the early 2030s. "And we gather from the talks with SAIC that the partner does not question the work." China remains a key sales market and technology driver for VW. Critical voices are taken into account: "We are looking for an exchange. If there are more such studies and findings, we will confront our joint venture partners with them."