Human rights campaigners are leading a call for apparel brands and retailers to end all sourcing – from cotton to finished garments – from China’s Xinjiang region within 12 months.
72 Uyghur rights groups and over 100 civil society organisations and labour unions from around the world have issued the plea in response to what they say are ongoing human rights abuses by the Chinese government in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Uyghur Region), known to local people as East Turkistan.
“Now is the time for real action from brands, governments and international bodies – not empty declarations. To end the slavery and horrific abuses of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim peoples by the Chinese government, brands must ensure their supply chains are not linked to the atrocities against these people. The only way brands can ensure they are not profiting from the exploitation is by exiting the region and ending relationships with suppliers propping up this Chinese government system,” says Jasmine O’Connor OBE, CEO of Anti-Slavery International.
According to the campaigners, the Chinese government has rounded up an estimated 1-1.8m Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim people in detention and forced-labour camps. The atrocities in the Uyghur region allegedly include torture, forced separation of families, and the compulsory sterilisation of Uyghur women.
“A central element of the government’s strategy to dominate the Uyghur people is a vast system of forced labour, affecting factories and farms across the region and China, both inside and beyond the internment camps,” the groups say in a statement.
It has estimated one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton and/or yarn from the Uyghur region and says “it is virtually certain that many of these goods are tainted with forced labour.”
“Moreover, apparel brands maintain lucrative partnerships with Chinese corporations implicated in forced labour, including those that benefit from the forced labour transfer of victims from the Uyghur region to work in factories across China.”
Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, adds: “Forced labourers in the Uyghur region face vicious retaliation if they tell the truth about their circumstances. This makes due diligence through labour inspections impossible and virtually guarantees that any brand sourcing from the Uyghur region is using forced labour.”
The groups are seeking the following commitments from bands and retailers:
- Stop sourcing cotton, yarn, textiles, and finished products from the Uyghur Region. Since cotton and yarn from the region is used to make textiles and finished goods across China and in numerous other countries, this requires brands to direct all factories that supply them with textiles and finished goods not to use cotton or yarn from the Uyghur region.
- Cut ties with companies implicated in forced labour – those that have operations in the Uyghur region and have accepted government subsidies and/or government-supplied labour at these operations. They claim examples include: Hong Kong-based Esquel Group and Chinese companies based outside of the Uyghur Region, such as Huafu Fashion Co, Lu Thai Textile Co, Jinsheng Group (parent company of Litai Textiles/Xingshi), Youngor Group, and Shandong Ruyi Technology Group Co.
- Prohibit any supplier factories located outside of the Uyghur Region from using Uyghurs or Turkic or Muslim workers supplied through the Chinese government’s forced labour transfer scheme.
US industry committed to eradicating forced labour
Several US apparel industry trade bodies have today (23 July) issued a joint statement following the NGO Call to Action to reiterate their continued focus on identifying and eradicating forced labour.
The American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America (FDRA), National Retail Federation (NRF), Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), and the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) said a successful solution for all involved, above all the workers themselves, will require state-to-state engagement and collaborative partnerships across government, industry, labour advocacy groups, non-governmental organisations, and other stakeholders.
“We again urge our nation’s leaders to immediately establish a multi-stakeholder working group to develop and deploy a collective approach that accurately assesses the problem, identifies constructive solutions to increase transparency, and protects both the rights of workers and the integrity of global supply chains.
“Following the publication of early reports, in alignment with our zero tolerance for forced labor, our associations and others joined forces as part of a multi-industry program to use our collective efforts to address the situation. Building on work the associations and member brands had already done separately, we have spent the last eight months working together to address due diligence challenges and opportunities.
“Since coming together, we have implemented a broad-based effort, convening with a wide variety of stakeholders, including NGOs, labor groups, and policy makers in all branches of government. In these meetings, we have highlighted public reporting on the region, shared our industry’s decades of work on due diligence and remedy, reiterated our zero tolerance approach to forced labor, and called for unified action by relevant stakeholders to find the best way forward.
“We are and will continue to be committed to working with all key stakeholders on this critically important human rights issue.”
US takes steps to block Xinjiang imports
Earlier this month, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it would take increased enforcement action against US firms that continue to trade or conduct business in Xinjiang, China.
The announcement followed a decision by US President Donald Trump in June to issue sanctions over the repression of China’s Uyghurs. The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, which was signed into law “condemns gross human rights violations of specified ethnic Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang region in China and other purposes, including the specified authority to impose sanctions on certain foreign persons.”
Meanwhile, this week, the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security published a list of 11 Chinese entities allegedly implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, three of which are textile and garment factories. One of these was Hong-Kong headquartered Esquel Group which defended its position, adding it is an “ethical company that pays and treats its employees well and it does not and never will use forced labour.”
In a daily press conference on 21 July, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said the issue concerning Xinjiang is “never about human rights, religion or ethnicity, but about fighting terrorism and separatism.”
“Xinjiang affairs are purely China’s domestic affairs where no country has any right or is in any position to interfere. The Chinese government is firmly determined to defend national sovereignty, security and development interests, to fight terrorist, separatist and religious extremist forces, and to oppose foreign interference in China’s Xinjiang affairs.
“Under the pretext of “human rights,” the US has abused export restriction measures and put those Chinese companies on its entity list. China firmly opposes this practice as it violates the basic norms governing international relations, interferes in China’s internal affairs and undermines China’s interests.
“The US cares nothing about “human rights.” Its true intention is to oppress Chinese companies, disrupt stability in Xinjiang and slander China’s Xinjiang policy. The international community knows that very clearly. We urge the US to correct its mistakes, withdraw this decision and stop intervening in China’s domestic affairs. China will continue taking all necessary measures to safeguard our companies’ legitimate rights and interests.”
Xinjiang is one of the largest suppliers of cotton globally, with a recent joint advisory issued by the DHS along with the US Department of State, the US Department of the Treasury, and the US Department of Commerce, noting it is estimated that 84% of cotton production from China comes from Xinjiang.
Xinjiang cotton is, in some instances, directly exported (though still within China), and in other cases processed into yarn, textiles, or finished apparel within Xinjiang. Reporting by the China Citizen Power Initiative indicates that some parts of the cotton supply chain include prison labourers working in cotton fields, processing cotton and producing apparel, the document adds.
In March, the Better Cotton Initiative suspended its activities in Xinjiang on the back of concerns over the prevalence of labour abuses in the region.
The same month, a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) alleged more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang between 2017-19 to work in factories including ones making garments and footwear. Its report named several brands including Adidas, L Brands, Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M and VF Corp.
Adidas told just-style it explicitly instructed its suppliers to stop sourcing products and yarn from the region when the allegations against one of the supplier factories were made in 2019. A&F said the same.
VF Corp said neither it or its brands had a relationship with the supplier named, while L Brands and H&M said they both prohibited forced labour and had due diligence processes in place to identify and address supply chain risks.