Crimes On Land: The Uyghurs Forced to Process the World’s Fish
On a cloudy morning this past April, more than eighty men and women, dressed in matching red windbreakers, stood in orderly lines in front of the train station in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang, China.
The people were Uyghurs, one of China’s largest ethnic minorities. They stood, with suitcases at their feet, watching a farewell ceremony held in their honor by the local government. A video of the event shows a woman in traditional dress pirouetting on a stage. A banner reads, “Promote Mass Employment and Build Societal Harmony.” At the end of the video, drone footage zooms out to show trains waiting to take the Uyghurs across the country, where they will be put to work.
The event was part of a vast labor transfer program run by the Chinese state, which forcibly sends Uyghurs throughout China and puts them to work for major industries. “It’s a strategy of control and assimilation,” Adrian Zenz, an anthropologist who studies internment in Xinjiang, said. “And it’s designed to eliminate Uyghur culture.”
The program, in turn, is part of a wider agenda intended to subjugate a historically restive people. Han Chinese are the country’s dominant ethnic group, but more than half of the population of Xinjiang, a landlocked region in northwestern China, is ethnic minority, mostly Uyghur but also Kyrgyz, Tajik, Kazakh, Hui, and Mongol.
Uyghur insurgents revolted throughout the 1990s and bombed police stations in 2008 and 2014. In response, China began a broad program of persecution, under which Muslim and other religious minorities in China could be detained for months or years for acts such as reciting a verse of the Qur’an at a funeral or growing a long beard. The government has also arrested Uyghurs en masse and placed them in “re-education” camps, where they are often subjected to torture, beatings, and forced sterilization. At the height of these programs, between one and two million Uyghurs were detained in the camps. The U.S. government has described the country’s actions in Xinjiang as a form of genocide.
In the early 2000s, China began transferring Uyghurs to work outside of the region as part of a program that would later be called Xinjiang Aid. In 2014, the region’s party secretary noted that the program would promote “full employment” and “ethnic interaction, exchange, and blending,” but Chinese academic publications have described it as a way to “crack open” the “solidified problem” of Uyghur society. The program also provides cheap labor for China’s major industries—a need that became more acute after the start of Covid-19, when lockdowns created labor shortages.
Between 2014 and 2019, according to government statistics, Chinese authorities annually relocated more than ten percent of Xinjiang’s population—or over two and a half million people—through labor transfers. The effect was enormous: between 2017 and 2019, according to the Chinese government, birth rates in Xinjiang declined by almost half. The transferred Uyghurs have been put to work harvesting cotton, laboring in polysilicon factories, and producing textiles and solar panels. (Officials at China’s foreign affairs ministry did not respond to questions about the program.)
In 2021, Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which declared that all products produced “wholly or in part” from Xinjiang or ethnic minority workers from the province should be presumed to have involved state-imposed forced labor and are therefore banned from entering the U.S. The law has produced results: in the past year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has detained more than a billion dollars of goods connected to Xinjiang, including electronics, clothing, and pharmaceuticals.
But until now, one industry has largely escaped notice: the seafood industry.
The U.S. imports roughly eighty percent of its seafood, much of it from China. Half of the fish sticks served in American public schools are processed in China, according to the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers. But the many handoffs between fishing boats, processing plants, and exporters make it difficult for countries to track the origins of the seafood they import. Additionally, foreign journalists tend to be forbidden from reporting in Xinjiang, and censors scrub the Chinese internet of information about Uyghur labor.
To learn more about what is happening, The Outlaw Ocean Project has for the past four years conducted an extensive investigation that provides a first glimpse into the little-known system of forced Uyghur labor that gives the world much of its seafood, centered primarily in Shandong Province, a processing hub along the eastern coast of China. To verify the location of seafood-processing plants that are using forced Uyghur labor, the project’s researchers reviewed hundreds of pages of internal company newsletters, local news reports, a database of Uyghur testimonies, trade data, and satellite and cell phone imagery. They also watched thousands of videos uploaded to the Internet, mostly to Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and verified that the posters had initially registered in Xinjiang. Additionally, they asked specialists to review the languages used in the videos and hired investigators to visit some of the plants.
All of the available evidence reviewed by The Outlaw Ocean Project points toward a deeply troubling situation. “This discovery about seafood and the reach of the labor-transfer program,” said Sarah Teich, a lawyer who deals with Uyghur labor issues, “ties the Uyghur abuses to consumers globally.”
The transfers usually start with a knock on the door. Then a “village work team” made up of local Party officials enters a household and engages in “thought work,” which involves urging Uyghurs to voluntarily join government programs, some of them involving relocations.
The official narrative suggests that Uyghur workers are grateful for employment opportunities, and some likely are. But a classified internal directive from Kashgar Prefecture’s Stability Maintenance Command, written in 2017, notes that people who resist work transfers can be punished with detention. Zenz told me about a woman from Kashgar was detained for refusing a factory assignment because she had to take care of two small children. Another woman who refused a transfer was put in a cell for “non-cooperation.”
After recruits are rounded up, they get their placements. This past February, fourteen hundred Uyghurs were lined up at a former internment camp in southwestern Xinjiang for a “job fair.” A video of a similar event shows people signing contracts, monitored by officials in army fatigues. Many transfers are carried out by train or plane. Xinjiang Zhongtai Group, a Fortune 500 conglomerate, recently organized the transfer of 100,000 workers to Hotan prefecture. (Zhongtai did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
Sometimes, transfers are motivated by labor demands. In March, 2020, the Chishan Group, one of China’s leading seafood catching and processing companies, published an internal newsletter describing what it called the “huge production pressure” caused by the pandemic. That October, Party officials from the local anti-terrorist detachment of the public security bureau and the human resources and social security bureau, which handles work transfers, met twice with executives to discuss how to find the conglomerate additional labor. Soon after, Chishan agreed to accelerate transfers to their plants. Wang Shanqiang, the deputy general manager at Chishan, said in a corporate newsletter , “The company looks forward to the migrant workers from Xinjiang arriving soon.” (The Chishan Group did not respond to requests for comment.)
Since the Uyghurs sent to the factories are monitored closely, one of the only ways to get a peek into their lives is through the images and videos that they post on social media. Many take selfies by the water when they first arrive in Shandong. Xinjiang is the furthest place on earth from the ocean.
Some post Uyghur songs with mournful lyrics in their videos. These lyrics could mean nothing, but according to Yalkun Uluyol, a researcher at Koç University, in Istanbul, at times they may convey cryptic messages designed to bypass Chinese censors.
One middle-aged Uyghur man, on his way to work in a Shandong seafood plant, filmed himself sitting in an airport departure lounge in March 2022 and set the footage to the song “Kitermenghu” (“I Shall Leave”). He cuts away just before lines that anybody familiar with the song would know, including: “Now we have an enemy, you should be careful.”
One woman posted a video in which she puts on a headband from a seafood company while a voiceover says, “What separates us from our parents and our hometown, leaves us in a lifetime of regret, and lures everyone in the world into slavery? Yes, money.”
In a slideshow, workers are shown packing seafood into cardboard boxes while a voiceover says, “The greatest joy in life is to defeat an enemy who is many times stronger than you, and who has oppressed you, discriminated against you, and humiliated you.”
In some videos, workers express their unhappiness in slightly less veiled terms. One video shows two Uyghur men working on a fish-packing line, with a soundtrack used by many Douyin users.
“How much do you get paid in a month?” one man asks the other.
“Three thousand,” the second responds.
“Then why are you still not happy?”
“Because I have no choice.”
Seafood supply chains are notoriously difficult to penetrate. To detect forced labor, companies tend to rely on firms that conduct “social audits,” in which inspectors visit a factory to make sure it complies with private labor standards.
But social audits are typically announced ahead of time, which allows managers to hide Xinjiang ethnic minority workers during inspections. Even when workers are interviewed, they may be hesitant to answer honestly, for fear of retribution. When Sarosh Kuruvilla, a professor of industrial relations at Cornell, analyzed more than forty thousand audits from around the world, he found that almost half were unreliable. “The tool is completely broken,” he said.
In May, 2022, social auditors from SGS, one of the top auditing firms, toured the Haibo factory, in Shandong, and found no evidence of forced labor at the plant. But when The Outlaw Ocean Project investigated the matter, it found that more than one hundred seventy people from Xinjiang worked at Haibo in 2021, and a half dozen Uyghur workers posted regularly to Douyin at the plant throughout 2022. On the same day that the auditors toured, a young Uyghur worker posted pictures of herself near the plant’s dormitories and loading bays. (“We are a company run in accordance to the law and regulations,” a representative from the Haibo plant said in an email. Representatives from the Haidu plant did not respond to requests for comment.)
This was not an isolated incident. In its investigation, The Outlaw Ocean Project found another example of a Uyghur who posted a video of themselves at a factory within days of that plant being cleared by social audits, as well as other videos taken within weeks of audits. It also found that half of the Chinese exporters that it had identified as tied to Uyghur labor had passed audits by leading global-inspection firms.
Even some companies that are certified as “sustainable” are implicated. The investigation found that all of the seafood plants that we investigated using Xinjiang forced labor are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). (Jo Miller, the MSC’s head of public relations, acknowledged that the company is reliant on social audits, which have “significant limitations.”)
In its investigation, The Outlaw Ocean Project found that at least ten large seafood companies in China have used more than a thousand Uyghur laborers since 2018. During that time, those companies shipped more than forty-seven thousand tons of seafood to the United States. Seafood from these plants was bought by American importers, among them High Liner Foods. (A spokesperson for High Liner Foods said that the plant it worked with had undergone a third-party audit in September 2022.)
Because seafood can get commingled at each stage of shipping, it is difficult to know for sure where any given batch ends up. But American companies that imported from factories using Uyghur labor sent their products to supermarkets across the country, including Walmart, Costco, Kroger, and Albertsons. (A spokesperson for Walmart said that the company “expects all our suppliers to comply with our standards and contractual obligations, including those relating to human rights.” A spokesperson for Albertsons said that they would stop purchasing certain seafood products from High Liner Foods. Costco and Kroger did not respond to requests for comment.)
The importers also sent seafood to Sysco, the global foodservice giant that supplies more than four hundred thousand restaurants worldwide. (A spokesperson for Sysco said its supplier, Yantai Sanko, “has never received any workers under a state-imposed labor transfer program. Additionally, Yantai Sanko was successfully audited in September 2022 by a third party auditor using the SMETA social audit standard.”)
Additionally, during the past five years, the U.S. government has bought more than two hundred million dollars’ worth of seafood from importers tied to Uyghur labor, for use in public schools and federal prisons, and on military bases. (A spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture said that federal agencies are required to source from U.S. waters, but watchdog groups say exemptions mean that much of the seafood actually comes from China.)
The U.S. is not the only country importing seafood tied to Xinjiang labor. The Outlaw Ocean Project also identified seafood imports tied to Xinjiang labor in over 36 countries.
To address this situation in the U.S., experts say that adjustments need to be made to the federal Seafood Import Monitoring Program. The program, designed to detect and combat illegal fishing, requires importers to keep detailed records on their products. But several key species, including squid and salmon, are not included in monitoring, and it doesn’t require companies to disclose information about workers.
Judy Gearhart, who works for the Accountability Research Center at American University, argues that the law behind the program should be expanded to force companies in China and their U.S. buyers to provide more detailed information about workers at Chinese processing plants. Uyghur experts like Laura Murphy call for companies to undertake more effective human rights due diligence that’s designed to detect state-imposed forced labor in China. “The U.S. is falling behind in the global race to require companies to undertake basic checks that can detect Xinjiang forced labor, and other forms of exploitation,” said Chloe Cranston of Anti-Slavery International.
Robert Stumberg, a law professor at Georgetown University, said that the law on Uyghur labor is “distinctly powerful” and that the U.S. government has already enforced it for solar panels, auto parts, computer chips, palm oil, sugar, and tomatoes. To Stumberg, it’s obvious what now has to happen.
“Seafood,” he says, “should be next.”
This story was produced by The Outlaw Ocean Project, a nonprofit journalism organization in Washington, D.C. Reporting and writing was contributed by Ian Urbina, Daniel Murphy, Joe Galvin, Maya Martin, Susan Ryan, Austin Brush and Jake Conley.