Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 25 March 2021


A money transfer to Australia landed this Uyghur in prison

Carrie LaFrenz

China’s harsh policy towards the Muslim ethnic Uighurs has come down hard three times on Mayila Yakufu. She has spent three years in a dark cell. Her sister and parents are Australian citizens living in Adelaide who haven’t heard from her in years.

A $130,000 transfer from Chinese-controlled Bank of China’s Yining branch in July 2013 by Ms Yakufu to her parents in Australia to help buy a house in Adelaide was the alleged “crime” that led to a series of arbitrary detentions in 2019. Since November 2020, she was taken to Yining City Detention Centre, where she remains.

Uyghur Marhaba Salay with her son holding her imprisoned sister’s picture while attending a protest at the front of Parliament in Adelaide.  Alex Frayne

“We have all this evidence that this money was used to purchase our house in Adelaide,” Marhaba Yakub Salay, Ms Yakufu’s sister, told the AFRWeekend.

“Then it became her crime that she was financially supporting ‘terrorism’ six years later. We are Australian citizens. That means China is accusing Australian citizens of terrorism. I sent all the documents to the relative Chinese authorities but they have just ignored it.”

Ms Yakub said none of her family, including her sister’s three children living with her aunt in China, are permitted to contact her sister, a single mother.

“I’m worried about the children going to this highly secretive boarding school, it’s where they take children of prisoners and they get highly disconnected from their culture and family,” Ms Yakub said.

Ms Yakub’s family story is not uncommon for this ethnic group and other minority religions from Xinjiang province, which have often been forced into labour camps or detained.

Earlier in March she returned from Canberra where she was hoping to see a proposed bill pass that aimed to ban goods produced by Uighurs in forced labour camps. But the federal government and Labor blocked the attempt by Independent Senator Rex Patrick to push through the Senate a motion that would have acknowledged Beijing’s actions against the Uighurs as genocide.

A government submission to the Customs Amendment Bill 2020 said the import ban only applies to goods produced or manufactured in China, but modern slavery risks are not limited to any single region or country. The government recently committed $10.6 million to fight modern slavery over five years.

But institutional investors are pushing for improved supply chain due diligence from ASX-listed companies to help combat the issue.

Ethical Partners Funds Management manages about $2.5 billion on behalf of large superannuation funds, charities and high net wealth individuals.

Robyn Parkin, head of sustainability & advocacy, said given that China is Australia’s largest trading partner – importing more than $80 billion worth of products a year – consumers and investors need a quick way to check they are not supporting forced labor.

“Whilst we would still encourage government intervention and a multi-faceted approach, we strongly urge corporates to address sourcing from this region, identify China as a risk, and note what strategies they are taking to mitigate this risk in their supply chain,” she said.

“The public would be horrified if they knew they unwillingly bought sheets made from this region.”

Australia’s Modern Slavery Act requires companies that generate more than $100 million in revenue to provide an annual statement outlining risks to modern slavery in their supply chains. Companies with a fiscal year end of June 30 must file by March 31. This is the first year most ASX200 companies and many super funds will file this report.

Grocery giant Woolworths said in its first Modern Slavery Statement that no global retailer is immune to modern slavery risk in their operations and supply chains.

Of 25 companies operating in the ‘fashion, textiles, apparel and luxury goods’ segment which had lodged their modern slavery statements by late February, Kathmandu and Woolworths were the only two companies to mention their exposure in their supply chain, naming Xinjiang province in Northwest China, and listed actions to rectify this, according to analysis by advocacy group Be Slavery Free.

Marhaba Salay, with her mother Bahar and father Yakub, says no company should be importing goods made in the Xinjiang province, given the human rights abuses.  Supplied

Wesfarmers via its Target chain had some exposure, as did Cotton On, but the retailers stopped buying cotton last year from Xinjiang province due to concerns about human rights abuses.

Impact investment firm Brightlight Group’s Tim Macready believes companies will look more deeply into their supply chains in coming years thanks to COVID-19 and consumer demand.

“We realised over the past 12 months supply chains are far more complex that we thought,” said Mr Macready, who led the investment strategy for Christian Super’s $1.4 billion portfolio.

“I think you will start to see less cost minimising focus, and more focus on understanding supply chain complexity. There is also an increasing willingness of a consumer to make purchase decisions based on this kind of information. It’s become a bottom line issue.”

ESG data provider FairSupply analysed 446 Modern Slavery Statements that showed only 6 per cent of entities assessed the risk of modern slavery beyond the first tier of their supply chain, and just 10 per cent of boards have been trained in modern slavery compliance issues.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute conservatively estimates that more than 80,000 Uighurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017-2019, and some of them were sent directly from detention camps.

Ms Yakub, who runs a popular Uighur restaurant in Adelaide with her parents, said all her friends have erased her from WeChat, and she has not talked to her other family in China in a number of years because she is worried she could put them at risk.

“We will keep going and fighting,” she said. “But I hope Australia can wake up and do something about human rights. My sister is not a terrorist.”

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