Volkswagen says audit finds no sign of forced labour at Xinjiang site – Reuters

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  • VW hires Berlin-based Loening GmBH for Xinjiang audit
  • Audit limited to 197 employees of jointly-owned site
  • Auditor says China data collection challenges well-known

BERLIN, Dec 5 (Reuters) – A Volkswagen-commissioned (VOWG_p.DE) audit of its jointly owned site in Xinijang, China, had found no signs of forced labour, the automaker said on Tuesday, although the auditor added that the challenges of data collection in China were widely known.

The audit, which was carried out by German human rights due diligence firm Loening Human Rights & Responsible Business GmbH, included on-site interviews and inspection of employee contracts and salary payments for the site’s 197 employees.

“The situation in China and Xinjiang and the challenges in collecting data for audits are well known,” Loening’s managing director Markus Loening said in a statement, adding the mandate was limited to the employees of the Urumqi plant, which is a joint venture with SAIC Motors (600104.SS).

Earlier this year, Volkswagen investors demanded that the carmaker request cooperation from SAIC to conduct an independent audit of labour conditions at the site in Xinjiang, a region where rights groups have documented abuses including mass forced labour in detention camps.

Beijing denies any such abuses.

Global index provider MSC (MSCI.N) marked Volkswagen with a ‘red flag’ in its social issue category in November 2022 due to allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang, prompting some investors to drop the stock from their portfolios.

Loening carried out the audit with two Chinese lawyers from a firm in Shenzhen, Volkswagen said, without naming them.

Beijing has on numerous occasions sought to curb the influence of Western auditors across China.

A U.S. auditor’s office was raided in Beijing earlier this year and reports emerged that China instructed state-owned enterprises to stop using the ‘Big Four’ auditing firms PwC, EY, KPMG and Deloitte.

Volkswagen said the audit was conducted in line with the SA8000 standard, a management systems standard based on international human rights principles which assesses eight areas including child labour, forced labour and health and safety.

Still, the site had not received an official SA8000 certification, Volkswagen added. Loening is not listed on the website of SAI, which crafted the standard, as an accredited body to provide such certifications.

Volkswagen wound down the site’s operations after the pandemic, reducing the number of staff from a peak of 650 to 197, of which just under a quarter are Uyghur. It has denied reports that it has kept the plant open as a condition from Beijing to keep producing across China.

“The employees are paid above average and have little to do,” Loening said, highlighting that the plant, which previously assembled the Santana model, now only handled “technical commissioning and deliveries to the region”.

Volkswagen’s China chief Ralf Brandstaetter said he saw no signs of forced labour when he toured the site in February.

However, his comments drew criticism from some campaigners and a major Volkswagen investor who said ascertaining labour standards in the region was impossible.

Reporting by Victoria Waldersee Editing by Christoph Steitz, Mark Potter and Alexander Smith

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Autos correspondent in Germany, covering the industry’s transition to electric vehicles. Previously reported on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the retail sector in South Asia, China and Europe, and wider general news. Formerly at YouGov and Economy, a charity working to produce accessible economics coverage.