UK Government bought £150m of PPE from Chinese firms linked to Uighur human rights abuses
Ministers handed almost £150m to Chinese firms with links to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang amid a race for PPE after Covid hit.
The Health Department paid £122m to Winner Medical, which uses cotton produced by a supplier that works in the controversial region and has ties to a paramilitary group accused by the US of using forced labour.
Another £19m contract went to pharmaceutical firm China Meheco and £16.5m was paid to Sinopharm, both of which have been linked to labour programmes in the province.
Campaigners have accused the Communist regime in China of a brutal crackdown on Uighur Muslims living in Xinjiang, with thousands imprisoned and allegedly forced into slave labour.
It will pile further pressure on the Government to set out how money was spent in protective kit when the pandemic struck, forcing the NHS to build on critically low supplies.
Winner Medical buys 83pc of its cotton from China Cotton Ltd according to a 2019 filing. In turn, China Cotton Ltd has a commercial co-operation agreement with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary organisation accused of human rights violations and heavily involved in cotton production.
The XPCC is under a US trade embargo for the use of forced labour.
In July, the US Treasury accused it of “mass arbitrary detention and severe physical abuse, among other serious abuses targeting Uighurs…and other ethnic minorities in the region.”
Contracts were awarded to Winner as recently as late May, long after the initial chaos had passed.
Separately, China Meheco lists the XPCC as an “account payable” in a company report. It also lists the XPCC as a company used for “labour services”.
Sinopharm is listed as a participant in the Xinjiang Labour Transfer Programme – a scheme which involves the forced relocation of Uighur workers across the country – according to a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank.
Nick Davies, of the Institute for Government, said: “These are incredibly serious allegations. Government is rightly committed to keeping its supply chains free from modern slavery.
“While some mistakes in the initial rush to secure PPE are understandable, to repeatedly use questionable suppliers, and to award such a large contract in late May would be a serious failure of due diligence.
“The government must urgently investigate, cease contracts with suppliers found to benefit from modern slavery, and ensure that any mistake are not repeated.”
Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said: “Slavery was abolished under British law almost 200 years ago but now it’s alive and well in Xinjiang making us complicit in some of the worst human rights abuses and undercutting legal suppliers. We need to use the G7 to set global standards stopping slave-goods reaching free countries.”
Luke De Pulford, of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, said: “A national emergency doesn’t justify exposing UK consumers to slavery.
“The wider issues exposed by this work demonstrates the huge issues in regard to supply chains, which need to be confronted.”
“The civil service is stuck in a time warp – it still thinks in terms of the golden era of relations with China – it needs to wake up and recognise China is perpetrating atrocities against the Uighur people.”
The Health Department said: “We take every allegation of modern slavery extremely seriously and all our suppliers must follow the highest legal and ethical standards or they can be removed from consideration for future contracts.
“Proper due diligence is carried out for all Government contracts and all suppliers appointed to our frameworks must comply with the Labour Standards Assurance System which upholds robust rules to prevent abuses of labour.
“We have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect our health and social care staff on the frontline.”
More than 6.7bn PPE items have been delivered so far, the spokesman said.