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Toxic tiles: the floors we walk on could be made with forced labor

  • Published on
    June 15, 2022
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  • Category:
    Forced Labor, Law & Policy
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The vinyl flooring industry is experiencing a boom in the U.S. and other wealthy countries. At chain stores like Home Depot, being able to purchase vinyl flooring –  what the industry calls “luxury vinyl tile” –   allows consumers to renovate their homes cheaply.

In a new report by the Helena Kennedy Center for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University in England and the Maine-based toxic chemicals research team Material Research, researchers detail how this industry is tainted by forced Uyghur labor and how vinyl tiles enter U.S. markets through subsidiaries.

The report calls on the industry “to identify its risk and divest from complicity in Uyghur forced labor.” It also demands all companies sourcing from China – including Home Depot – to examine their supply chains. The Intercept takes a closer look at a new sector that is part of the global supply chain and stained with the human suffering of minorities in this region of China.

The Uyghur Region’s PVC supply chain

Xinjiang Zhongtai Chemical Company is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, a type of plastic that is the key ingredient in these vinyl floors. As the Covid-19 pandemic began and factories in China were shutting down to protect their workers and prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Zhongtai’s PVC plants continued to operate.

Matturdi, whose story is detailed in a post on the company’s WeChat account, left behind his wife, newborn baby, and sick mother. Hours later, he arrived in the regional capital of Ürümqi, where people in his group were assigned beds in dormitories and given military clothing to wear. Instead of watching his baby learn to walk or caring for his mother, he spent his days working in Zhongtai’s facilities, where he was exposed to both toxic chemicals and a terrifying new virus.

Ten percent of the world’s PVC comes from the Uyghur Region, mostly from Zhongtai, and from there, PVC resin is then transported to eastern China, India, and Vietnam, where it is made into flooring before being exported to the United States and other parts of the world. PVC is also used to make everyday products such as shower curtains and credit cards.

The Sheffield Hallam and Material Research team says it is likely that plastics from Zhongtai are also used to make PVC pipes for global buyers.

As a state-owned enterprise, Zhongtai has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party and is among the major users of forced labor in the Uyghur Region. According to its own institutional information, Zhongtai has hired more than 5,500 Uyghurs like Matturdi to work in its factories under the government’s “labor transfer programs,” which is nothing less than slavery and a forced labor system.

In fact, the two largest PVC manufacturers in China are both state-owned enterprises based in the Uyghur Region: Xinjiang Zhongtai Chemical (2.33 million tons per year, from four locations) and Xinjiang Tianye (1.4 million tons capacity per year, from one location). These companies export to 73 intermediary manufacturers, who then export PVC-based building materials to at least 158 companies worldwide.

Home Depot and business with the Uyghur Region

Home Depot sells Lifeproof, a specific line of inexpensive PVC tiles. The investigation points out how triangulation works to hide that the material comes from the Uyghur Region: Vietnam’s Jufeng New Materials flooring factory supplies tiles to Home Depot through Home Legend, a Georgia-based company. However, more than a third of Jufeng’s PVC resin imports come from Zhongtai, according to shipping records. Another half comes from Jufeng’s parent company in eastern China, which in turn sources heavily from Zhongtai. This production chain leads investigators to conclude that the Lifeproof line is at “high risk of being made from Xinjiang Zhongtai PVC.”

The Home Depot spokesman forwarded to The Intercept a letter from Home Legend, dated June 10, stating that Jufeng’s parent company had assured him that PVC from the Uyghur Region was not used to produce flooring for the large retailer. The spokesman also referred The Intercept to a Home Depot report stating that it audits suppliers to ensure compliance with “human rights, safety and environmentally sound practices,” including a ban on forced labor.

Home Depot did not respond to questions addressing when it last audited Home Legend or its downstream factories. Home Legend did not respond to requests for comment.

But the problem extends far beyond Home Depot. Investigators trace Zhongtai’s PVC to more than two dozen other flooring brands. They also highlight Zhongtai’s long list of investors in the United States and Europe, including the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, Dimensional Fund Advisors, and Vanguard. None of the funds responded to The Intercept’s questions about their investments in Zhongtai; in an email to investigators, Vanguard confirmed a $7 million investment in Zhongtai.

The environmental impact of PVC

In addition to the forced labor scheme, PVC production in the Uyghur Region uses mercury, which has been phased out of PVC production in the United States. Uyghur workers living in residences near the plants bear the costs. Jim Vallette of Material Research, one of the report’s authors said:

“In those conditions, at that scale, where the state is in control of production and there’s no accounting for the impacts, it’s almost unimaginable what’s happening. “There’s nothing like it on Earth in the combination of climate and toxic pollution. And workers are living there 24/7.”

Flooring companies’ marketing pitch is that vinyl floors are ideal for families and environmentally friendly because they don’t rely on wood and, according to manufacturers, last longer than wood floors. Some brands even pitch their products as liberating for women because the tiles are easy to install and clean, and they recruit influential women to promote their floors. However, behind this discourse of sustainability, forced labor is busy at work.

Share this information with your social circle, and let’s continue to call for the end of Uyghur forced labor in China. On June 21, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law, which requires companies to vet their supply chains for any use of labor in the Uyghur Region, will come into force. As PVC products often pass through several countries before reaching the United States, many vinyl floors would not automatically face scrutiny. The secrecy of supply chains must end.

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