Photo: Annegret Hilse (Reuters)
Volkswagen’s recent annual general meeting (AGM) has been making headlines – for all the wrong reasons. Investors and protestors alike made waves for the auto giant, demanding accountability and transparency for its supply chain, particularly the company’s factory in the Uyghur Region of China.
The report, Driving Force: Automotive Supply Chains and Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, published in November 2022 by Sheffield Hallam University revealed that more than 100 international automotive parts or car manufacturers that have some exposure to forced Uyghur labor made goods. This includes the world’s largest auto manufacturers, including Volkswagen.
In fact, Volkswagen has more ties than most due to it never closing its unprofitable factory in the Uyghur Region capital of Ürümchi. While other companies are busy denying their supply chains are connected to the Uyghur Region, Volkswagen, through a partnership with Chinese company SAIC Motor, is physically in the Uyghur Region.
“No reason to doubt”
Worse yet, Volkswagen’s China chief visited the factory in February 2023 and said he saw no sign of forced labor. At the AGM, he doubled down on his earlier statement, proclaiming, “I have no reason to doubt my impressions or the information available to me.”
Volkswagen is dismissing the evidence of UN experts, scholars, and survivors.
But their shareholders are convinced.
[Chief Executive Oliver Blume] did not mention the company’s Xinjiang plant in China, a joint venture with SAIC Motor (600104.SS), which has become a sore point for human rights activists as well as some shareholders, including top-20 investors Deka Investment and Union Investment.
Both urged the carmaker to require of SAIC that it conducts an external independent audit of the plant in Xinjiang, where rights groups have documented human rights abuses, including mass internment camps which China denies.
“Volkswagen must be certain that its supply chains are clean,” said Ingo Speich, head of sustainability and corporate governance at Deka.
Let them eat cake
Uyghur activist Haiyuer Kuerban, on behalf of the German association of ethical shareholders, Dachverband Kritische Aktionaere, sent Volkswagen a clear and stern message, “Take action to ensure that Volkswagen does not become a profiteer of the genocide against the Uyghurs. Act now! Show us that ‘Never again’ is more than just words!”
While Volkswagen may not have appreciated the message from the shareholders, they must have preferred the form. Activists of different stripes disrupted the AGM by gluing themselves to the street outside the meeting location, narrowly missing hitting a Volkswagen chair with cake, waving banners that read “End Uyghur Forced Labor” and one woman showed up topless with a message (“Dirty Money”) written on her back.
It is yet to be seen whether Volkswagen will change course following the AGM but undoubtedly the pressure will continue to mount.
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