Jun 15, 2020

East Turkestan: Forced labour used in clothing manufacture

Hundreds of global companies buy cotton and have goods made in Xinjiang, China, where over 1 million Uyghurs are estimated to be detained, many doing forced labour. Recently proposed US legislation targeting forced labour, as well as the recent disruption to Chinese manufacturing, give brands leverage to effect change, a human rights body has said. Last week the US House of Representatives adopted a legislation to punish top Chinese officials for detaining over 1 million Uyghurs in internment camps. Besides that, another bill – the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act – is making its way through the House. This legislation would place the burden of responsibility on brands to ensure they aren’t producing goods made by indentured Uyghur labour.

Below is an article published by South China Morning Post

It is chilling to think that many of us have at least one item of clothing in our wardrobes made by forced Uygur labour.

As consumers, it is a difficult issue to police. Nearly a quarter of the world’s raw cotton is turned into fabric in Xinjiang, a region in China where the Uygur minority group are persecuted and – according to human rights organisations – some are made to work in apparel factories against their will.

Hundreds of global companies buy cotton and make goods in Xinjiang, including Lacoste – which was found to be manufacturing gloves in a government detention centre – Muji, Uniqlo, H&M, Esprit and Adidas.

“You can’t ever be sure that you don’t have coerced labour in your supply chain if you do cotton business in China,” says Nathan Ruser, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). “Xinjiang labour and what is almost certainly coerced labour is very deeply entrenched into the supply chain that exists in Xinjiang.”

In a further escalation of the stand-off between the US and China, this summer the American government is taking steps to change the way garment manufacturers operate in the region – a move that could transform the fashion industry.

The US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly last week to pass a measure that would punish top Chinese officials for detaining an estimated 1 million-plus Uygurs in internment camps.

Another bill – the Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act – which is making its way through the House, would place the burden of responsibility on brands to ensure they aren’t producing goods made with indentured Uygur labour. Among companies cited in the draft legislation are the Esquel Group, a Hong Kong-based textile manufacturer with factories in Xinjiang, and Esquel customers including Calvin Klein, Esprit, Nike, Patagonia and Tommy Hilfiger.

A report this year by the Fair Labour Association, citing “credible reports of forced labour and other violations of fundamental human rights in the Xinjiang region”, called on affiliates including Esquel to end production there. The companies either declined to comment or denied using indentured Xinjiang labour.

“Brands are in a difficult situation,” says Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labour rights monitoring organisation. “They can’t defend what is taking place, and because they can’t do proper audits in Xinjiang, they don’t even have a mechanism to defend being there. Yet there is a very substantial cost associated with leaving, so instead they are choosing not to look at the situation directly.”

Currently the garment industry has strength in numbers, given the number of retailers that rely on Xinjiang to provide them with yarn.

“There is such a strong moral case for leaving, but they don’t want to do it,” Nova says. “It’s China, and as well as this being the cheapest and most reliable way to get cotton, most brands have their own very serious ambitions in the Chinese market and they don’t want to offend the Chinese government. As a result, they make no comment about what is the largest internment of a religious minority since World War II.”

Reports of widespread detentions at internment camps in Xinjiang have been circulating since 2018. Beijing has said that the “vocational training centres” are used to combat violent religious extremism, but evidence shows people being detained simply for expressing their Muslim faith or having connections in the Middle East.

That there are human rights abuses is widely agreed – but how do we know labour in the region is forced? Factories there are using government-recruited labour, and have government-subsidised facilities – which human rights groups believe is effective proof of forced labour. In some cases, goods are being made inside internment camps.

ASPI believes that as well as being forced into labour in Xinjiang, more than 80,000 Uygurs have been transferred out of the region to work in factories across China. Its report said some were sent directly from detention camps to factories associated with Nike, Apple and Dell.

Brands now have some power to curb the use of Uygur labour. Amid the US-China trade war and in the wake of severe coronavirus-related disruption, China will be nervous of losing any further manufacturing capital. This means retailers arguably have more power than they did a year ago to demand that Beijing reform Uygur rights. The backing of the US government will strengthen their case.

“If they [brands] withdraw, it could very well be a trigger for a fundamental shift in approach and it would save a number of lives,” Nova says. “It would be wonderful if they did. They don’t have to be active liberators, they just have to stop funding – and therefore aiding and abetting.”

“It is such a powerful test for the industry,” he adds. “All these years they have been saying they are committed to human rights – let’s see if it’s true.”


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