Volkswagen Questioned by US Senator Marco Rubio on Human Rights Issues Linked to China Suppliers

US Senator Marco Rubio seeks information from Volkswagen Group about a pair of planned joint ventures with companies accused of having a history of alleged human rights violations, including forced labor and human trafficking.

Rubio, a Florida Republican known for his aggressive stance on China, wants the German automaker to explain its decision to seek partnerships with the two Chinese companies to supply nickel, cobalt, lithium and other materials used to make batteries for electric vehicles. , according to a letter seen by Bloomberg News.

Aimed at VW CEO Herbert Diess, the senator’s April 27 investigation cites Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Co. and Tsingshan Holding Group Co., the world’s largest nickel producer, as companies accused of ethically dubious operations in Africa and the Southeast. Asian.

The probe is part of a broader debate on humanitarian issues in supply chains for materials needed in clean energy technology. Many of the inputs depend on China or require metals from environmentally sensitive areas or countries where child labor in cobalt mines has been a problem.

“As you may know, Huayou has been credibly implicated in the forced labor and human trafficking of child laborers in his cobalt mines” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rubio wrote in the letter. “Meanwhile, Tsingshan operates lithium and nickel mines in Indonesia, which requires the destruction of the rainforest ecosystem and is considered a significant risk to biodiversity.”

Rubio also implicated VW for what he claimed were profits it receives from forced labor involving the Uighur Muslim ethnic minority in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Suppliers to VW and other major automakers have come under fire for alleged links to controversial labor programs in Xinjiang, but China has repeatedly and forcefully denied that they involve forced labor.

VW confirmed receipt of the two-page letter, and a spokesman said in an emailed statement Thursday that it would respond to the senator “in an appropriate and timely manner.”

The company did not directly address the specific allegations, other than to say that it takes environmental sustainability and human rights seriously and has found no evidence that its suppliers in China’s Xinjiang region use coercive labor programs.

Huayou Cobalt said the allegations were “totally inaccurate” and that the company underwent regular third-party audits of responsible sourcing standards. It also works with partners like the Responsible Cobalt Initiative in Congo, a key producer, to improve conditions for workers.

“The problems and risks involved in mining in jurisdictions such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo are well known and recognized,” the company said. “Huayou Cobalt, like many of our downstream customers, believes that a policy of engagement and continual improvement in standards is a better approach than disengaging communities dependent on mining revenues.”

Tsingshan, which is run by Chinese tycoon and nickel market speculator Xiang Guangda, did not immediately comment on the matter when contacted by phone.

Huayou has faced accusations of complicity in the use of child labor in the DRC and of doing too little to help improve working conditions, while Tsingshan has faced opposition from some concerned about the impact of development projects in Indonesia on the environment and in remote communities.

Volkswagen, which is working on the industry’s largest electric vehicle launch, announced its intention to form strategic partnerships with the two Chinese companies earlier this year and said the potential deals would help reduce battery core costs. lithium-ion batteries to power electric vehicles.

The company has previously discussed efforts to improve safety and labor practices in its metals supply chains.

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