‘Wearing a Mask? It May Come From China’s Controversial Labor Program’ — HRC Lab collaborates on the story

July 19, 2020

The Human Rights Center Investigations Lab at UC Berkeley collaborated with the Uyghur Human Rights Project and New York Times Visual Investigation team to expose Chinese companies using Uighur forced labor to produce face masks—some of which are being exported to the United States. A story by the New York Times's Muyi XiaoHaley WillisChristoph KoettlNatalie Reneau and Drew Jordan with contributions from HRC's Stephanie Croft, John Ortilla, Sang-Min Kim, and Danil Cuffe—China is Using Uighur Labor to Produce Face Masksidentified a medical supply company that exported masks to the U.S. state of Georgia from a factory in China’s Hubei Province.  

It's estimated that China has detained more than one million Uighurs, an ethnic minority who are mostly Muslim, and operates a labor transfer program that puts them to work in factories that may be far from home. 

The HRC Investigations Lab and the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) spent months collecting and analyzing dozens of videos and social media reports documenting the labor transfers to factories within China, some of which produce masks. The lab also analyzed satellite imagery of detention centers and delved into complex supply chain information to track the production and movement of masks, considered personal protective equipment or PPE, from China to Europe, the US, and Latin America. 

“Global supply chains tainted by human rights violations are notoriously difficult to penetrate,” said Stephanie Croft, director of the Investigations Lab and an expert in researching supply chains. "The lab team harnessed information using a range of open source methods to uncover complex supply chains and possible shipments of PPE.” 

For more than six months, Investigations Lab student leader Sang-Min Kim and Lab Coordinator John Ortilla collaborated on tracking the Uighur labor program.  Using satellite imagery and findings from NGOs and experts, they began to document infrastructure and facilities.  

“At the onset of this research, we documented and geolocated approximately 150 possible re-education facilities and identified 100 schools using satellite imagery, and tracked social media, local news and announcements related to labor,” said Kim, a senior at UC Berkeley. “Yet, when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, suddenly the body of research took on new meaning." 

Lab Coordinator Ortilla, who worked in the lab as a student for three years on a range of projects, focused on the Uighur labor transfer system: “Eventually, it was apparent to us that we had built up a collection of information that could help expose this opaque treatment of Uighurs in China through using information found online."

Danil Cuffe, a recent Berkeley graduate who has been a leader in the HRC Lab, also contributed open source research for the story. 

The Investigations Lab was launched in 2016 by HRC's Alexa Koenig and Andrea Lampros to train students how to use open source methods to find and verify information online (videos, photos, and social media posts) related to human rights violations and international crimes. The students work with major NGOs, media, and legal organizations and have contributed to dozens of reports and news stories.