26 oktober 2023

Forced labour and human rights risks behind electric buses in Swedish public transport

A new report highlights risks of state-sanctioned forced labour in Chinese-manufactured electric buses that roam the streets and roads of Sweden. It’s not just the Uyghurs in Xinjiang who are being deprived of their rights. Other ethnic minority groups, young interns, and poor households are also affected by systematic forced labour.

As part of the green transition, there is an extensive electrification of the vehicle fleet in Swedish public transportation. However, with the growing demand of electrical vehicles there are also sustainability challenges in how the vehicles are manufactured. Currently, China is the world’s largest producer of electric vehicles and vehicle batteries.

ETI Sweden (Ethical Trading Initiative Sweden) has, together with the public transport authorities Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (SL), Västtrafik, Skånetrafiken, and Luleå Lokaltrafik, commissioned a report from the non-profit consultancy Globalworks. The purpose is to identify risks of human rights violations and forced labour in the Chinese supply chains of Swedish public transport authorities.

Download the full report

Download the summary report

Method and findings

The report builds on extensive searches on Chinese social media and the examination of official documents. The examination of workers’ complaints is based on 1.12 million posts that have been extracted and analysed for qualitative content analysis and quantitative trend analysis.

The posts include forced labour, systematic exploitation of interns, discrimination, extreme overtime, low wages, unauthorized wage deductions and debts, hazardous working conditions, substandard housing, unethical recruitment, and restricted trade union rights.

”Unfortunately, the findings confirm the fears we already had and strengthen our desire to develop new solutions. Our industry, together with authorities and decision-makers at national and EU level, need to act collectively to bring about change”, says Hanna Björk, Head of Sustainability at Västtrafik.

Public procurement of electric buses

The public transport authorities in Sweden are working to ensure that all procured buses are sustainably manufactured. Through SKR (Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions), there is a common Code of Conduct for suppliers. But monitoring the agreements challenging due to difficulties in conducting audits in China. In addition, under current regulation it is not possible to exclude individual countries in procurement.

”Public transport is far from alone in facing these risks, but as public actors, we need to lead the way and push the industry in a more sustainable direction. We want our passengers to be able to trust that journeys on public transport are both environmentally and socially sustainable,” says Helen Maalinn Ölander, Social Sustainability Strategist at SL.

Conclusion and next steps

An overarching conclusion is that public transport authorities procuring transportation services or in some cases, purchasing buses directly, must manage heavy risk exposure to severe human rights violations. Reliable systems to monitor working conditions in China are lacking, and both transparency and traceability in the supply chain are low.

The findings in the report will be used as a basis for further collaboration among public transport authorities within ETI Sweden’s Working Group on Electric Vehicles. The group will, among others, develop common requirements for public procurement of battery-powered buses.

ETI Sweden’s Recommendations to Public Transport Authorities

  • Unless already adopted, implement clear requirements in public procurements of transportation services aligned with internationally recognized human rights – understood, at a minimum, as those expressed in the International Bill of Human Rights and the principles concerning fundamental rights set out in the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
  • Exploit the full range of tools presented in the EU Directives on Public Procurement and the Swedish Public Procurement Law regarding setting social criteria in public contracts.

To address the findings regarding poor working conditions, this could include:

  • Consider the full life cycle of products in purchasing decisions, not only the immediate price, such as labour costs in the supply chain. This could include addressing the identified issues related to working conditions, by factoring in costs for increased wages, better accommodation standards, etc.
  • In addition to setting minimum requirements through contract performance clauses to respect labour rights, use award criteria to incentivize suppliers who can demonstrate leading and innovative practices in addressing the identified risks related to poor working conditions.
  • Ensure adequate resources are allocated internally for continued due diligence measures, including after contracts have been awarded, to follow up on requirements set in the tender process, track performance of suppliers, and respond to potentially new developments and/or information.
  • Seek collaboration with other contracting authorities, also outside of Sweden, to build leverage and common approaches to setting social criteria in public procurements of electric buses and transportation services.

To address the findings regarding forced labour, this could include:

  • Require suppliers to provide full traceability of their supply chains, including where components such as batteries etc., are manufactured.
  • Use contract performance clauses to require all suppliers bidding for the public contract to ensure that no forced labour is being used in the manufacturing of the goods. In evaluating alignment with the contract performance clauses, consider all suppliers, or sub-suppliers, not to be qualified for the evaluation if any of the following criteria is identified: 1) operating in Xinjiang, Tibet and Tibetan autonomous prefectures in Sichuan and Qinghai, 2) participating in state-organized labour transfer/poverty alleviation programs, 3) receiving vocational students through poverty alleviation programs.
  • Exclude suppliers deemed to be in violation of social and labour related standards from tenders. This could be based on publicly available information and research from credible independent sources.

The recommendations are based on international standards, mainly the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (OECD Guidelines), as well as responsibilities under relevant legal frameworks.


For questions about the report or ETI Sweden’s work on human rights in electric vehicles please contact Christopher Atapattu Riddselius on christopher.riddselius@etisverige.se.