Billionaire and anti-slavery campaigner Andrew Forrest has long been silent on the plight of the Uyghurs (Images: AAP/Supplied)

Mining billionaire Andrew Forrest has talked a big game about stopping global slavery, but he has been silent on arguably the world’s most egregious example: China’s internment and labour exploitation of 1.5 million Uyghurs.

That silence — while continuing to spruik the Australia-China relationship which has driven his extreme wealth through Fortescue Metals — has become increasingly difficult to defend for the anti-slavery campaigner. Calls for action are intensifying.

“He’s at a crossroads,” local Uyghur community leader Meyassar Ablat told Inq. Ablat has relatives imprisoned in the north-western Chinese province of Xianjia, home to the Uyghur population. 

“[Forrest] has to decide whether he takes a moral and ethical stand on this and on what he supposedly stands for. It’s easy to speak up when you have nothing to lose, but when you have a lot at stake people are reluctant to speak up against China.

“When you stand up against something you have to be for everyone or you’re not really practising what you’re preaching there.”

(Forrest’s fortune swelled by close to $2 billion this week as Fortescue declared record profits boosted by strong Chinese demand.)

The questioning of where Forrest stands when it comes to the crunch — when his own business interests are at stake rather than others’ — comes at an awkward moment. He is set to deliver the prestigious ABC Boyer Lectures series on the theme of how “ethical entrepreneurs” can help shape “a better future” for Australia. According to the ABC’s media release, Forrest will make the case for business to collaborate with philanthropy to drive “positive change”.

The ABC’s board, which is stacked with Coalition government appointments and includes two members with mining industry ties, has refused to answer questions on how he was chosen for the lectures which confer considerable gravitas on the speaker. The choice has elsewhere been reported as a “captain’s pick” of board chair Ita Buttrose. The ABC has told Inq it won’t respond further.

Forrest has largely dodged the question of how he reconciles his much-trumpeted commitment to eradicate global slavery with his high-profile public support of the Chinese government. 

Forrest launched his Walk Free anti-slavery initiative with the bold claim that “we can end modern slavery in our generation”. His anti-slavery work kicked up several gears when he joined an exclusive club of international philanthropists to sign The Giving Pledge. Established by Bill and Melinda Gates, this pledge involves the wealthy promising to donate over half their wealth.

Forrest has long been motivated by his Christian beliefs to give his billions away. This follows the prosperity doctrine under which some Christians believe God will reward them with income and, in return, they tithe their income or give away more of it.

When it comes to the Uyghurs, Forrest has either chosen to not answer or to claim that he didn’t have the facts (as he did only a year ago). This year, evidence has emerged which makes Forrest’s position impossible to sustain.

In its world report for 2020, Human Rights Watch reported that 13 million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang were suffering “particularly harsh repression”. It cited “mass arbitrary detention, surveillance, indoctrination, and the destruction of the region’s cultural and religious heritage”, with “credible estimates” indicating that about 1 million Turkic Muslims were held in “political education” camps.

In March, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a well-publicised report which found that Chinese authorities had transported Uyghur workers for factory work in provinces outside Xinjiang. ASPI found 82 foreign and Chinese companies directly or indirectly benefited from using Uyghur workers through these “potentially abusive labour transfer programs”. The companies included Apple, BMW and Victoria’s Secret.

In May the United States enacted the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 requiring US agencies to report on human rights abuses against the Uyghurs.

In July the UK’s Anti-Slavery International put the Uyghur issue at the forefront of its campaigns. It said this was “the largest mass detention of an ethno-religious community since World War II”. 

Ablat, who is vice-president of the East Turkistan Australian Association, is reluctant to compare what is happening to the Uyghurs with the Jewish holocaust of World War II, but points out that lack of knowledge can no longer be a defence.

“Back then everyone was rightly saying ‘never again’, but now what we have is happening right before our eyes,” she says. “We have all this evidence. We have former detainees coming out and telling what’s actually happening in those camps, and we have actual clothing and products that are being manufactured within those forced labour camps.”

Forrest has campaigned hard for modern slavery laws which require Australian companies to eradicate slave labour from their supply chains — but it is Uyghur labour that makes up a large amount of that, especially in clothing.

Anti-Slavery International estimates that “staggeringly” about one-fifth of all cotton products globally could be made with cotton and/or yarn from the region, given the Uyghur region produces more than 80% of China’s cotton.

The American Retail Industry Leaders Association, representing major US brands entangled in the use of enforced labour, has said the reported situation is of a “scale, scope and complexity that is unprecedented during the modern era of global supply chains”.

Getting to the truth of labour conditions in countries like China can be next to impossible, said Salvation Army senior adviser Heather Moore. Moore is a leading figure in Australia’s anti-slavery movement.

“The standard advice is for companies to be diligent and follow up with audits and inspections to verify information [from] suppliers,” she says. But she warned that would be very difficult for companies to achieve given “the social controls” and other factors that limit independent access.

“With regards to the Uyghur situation — because it’s connected to allegations of state-sanctioned enforced labour, I think that creates almost insurmountable hurdles for some companies.”

Moore’s conclusion? “I remain unconvinced that any business can actually have proper leverage to address those kinds of situations. I’ve yet to see an alternative to exiting.”

Moore also cautioned that not all labour audits could be trusted and that there was evidence that social auditing — where slave labour conditions would be detected — had become “an industry in and of itself”.

Inq asked Forrest to address the serious claims made about China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and how that squared with his anti-slavery commitment.

Forrest’s philanthropic Minderoo Foundation supplied this statement which we run in full:Andrew Forrest strongly condemns forced labour and modern slavery in all its forms and was instrumental in having the Modern Slavery Act introduced and passed in Australia’s Parliament:

“As chairman of Fortescue, Dr Forrest has driven the company to take an industry-leading position in its commitment to protecting and promoting human rights and its zero tolerance for modern slavery in its supply chain. It was one of the first companies to sign up to a voluntary modern slavery statement and was a vocal supporter of the Modern Slavery Act in Australia.

“Dr Forrest made it his mission to get the Business Council of Australia to support the Modern Slavery Act, ensuring all members of the BCA were compliant with the act. He lead the implementation of the act and negotiated with the government its terms, that includes rules and guidelines for procurement from all countries — including China.  

“Dr Forrest co-founded the Freedom Fund and Minderoo Foundation’s Walk Free initiative, whose mission is to end modern slavery in our generation. He endorsed Walk Free’s commitment as a signatory of the ASI [Anti-Slavery International] Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region’s Call to Action, which demands united action from brands and suppliers working in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Dr Forrest believes it is the responsibility of every business to ensure their own supply chains are slavery free.

Dr Forrest has, and will continue to have, strong discussions behind closed doors about modern slavery issues in China, as he has with any country.

(Forrest has recently received a PhD in marine ecology from the University of Western Australia, hence the use of Dr. In 2014 he and his wife Nicola donated $65 million to UWA, the single largest philanthropic gift in Australian history.

Forrest’s statement that he has “strong discussions” behind closed doors is the most he has publicly said when asked about the Uyghurs. Yet for all his undoubted influence with the most senior officials of the Communist Party of China) — arranging some $250 million worth of personal protective equipment for COVID-19 emergency workers is an example — nothing appears to have shifted on the country’s record with the Uyghurs.

In Ablat’s view, the time for speaking behind closed doors is over: “I think people like Mr Forrest and others who have platforms and are influential people — who when they say something people actually take heed — they have more of a responsibility to speak out on these issues.

“You can’t pick and choose when you decide to stand up against slavery … He has to look deep within himself to see whether he’s prepared to go the full nine yards on what he supposedly stands for.”

Peter Fray

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