Clothing brands tangled in Uyghur forced labour claims - Just Style
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Clothing brands tangled in Uyghur forced labour claims

By Hannah Abdulla 04 Mar 2020

A new study from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has alleged more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang between 2017-19 to work in factories including ones making garments and footwear.

Clothing brands tangled in Uyghur forced labour claims

A new study from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has alleged more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang between 2017-19 to work in factories including ones making garments and footwear.

Reports have been surfacing for some time of ongoing human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region against the indigenous Uyghur population. Earlier this year, a US commission urged members of Congress and President Donald Trump to impose trade sanctions on China as it believed Chinese authorities may be committing crimes against humanity against the Uyghur people and other Turkic Muslims. 

Later that month, the US Department of Homeland Security published its first five-year strategy to prevent the import of goods produced with forced labour.

According to the ASPI report, some factories across China are using forced Uyghur labour under a state-sponsored labour transfer scheme that is “tainting the global supply chain.”

“Companies using forced Uyghur labour in their supply chains could find themselves in breach of laws which prohibit the importation of goods made with forced labour or mandate disclosure of forced labour supply chain risks,” says the report.

The report lists L Brands’ Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, Adidas, VF Corp’s The North Face, PVH’s Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Fast Retailing’s Uniqlo, Gap, Polo Ralph Lauren, Puma, Skechers, Inditex’s Zara, and Tommy Hilfiger as clothing companies among the 83 companies “directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labour transfer programmes.”

Its data is based on published supplier lists, media reports, and the factories’ claimed suppliers. 

Nike is identified as part of its case studies. In January 2020, around 600 ethnic minority workers from Xinjiang were employed at Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co. Ltd whose main customer is Nike, according to the report. It produces more than 7m pairs for the brand annually. The workers make Nike shoes during the day. In the evening, they attend a night school where they study Mandarin, sing the Chinese national anthem and receive ‘vocational training’ and ‘patriotic education’.

“The curriculum closely mirrors that of Xinjiang’s re-education camps,” says the report. 

“Photographs of the factory in January 2020 published by the newspaper show that the complex was equipped with watchtowers, razor wire and inward-facing barbed-wire fences. Uyghur workers were free to walk in the streets around the factory compound, but their comings and goings were closely monitored by a police station at the side gate equipped with facial recognition cameras.”

Nike did not return request for comment when approached by just-style.

A second example in the report covers “Xinjiang aid” – where workers are uprooted from Xinjiang and placed in factories in eastern and central China in the name of promoting ‘inter-ethnic fusion’ and ‘poverty alleviation’.

According to the report, Uyghur workers’ participation in these programmes is “rarely voluntary.” Rights groups have previously criticised the programmes as “coercive, highlighting how they intentionally removed Uyghurs from their homes and traditional way of life, only to force the workers to endure the long working hours, poor conditions, predatory bosses and discriminatory attitudes of their Han co-workers.”

Garment company Hao Yuanpeng Clothing Co. Ltd is alleged to be engaged in forms of industrial aid and reportedly supplies Adidas, Fila, Puma and Nike.

A spokesperson for Adidas told just-style after the allegations were made in spring 2019, it “immediately and explicitly instructed our suppliers not to source any products or yarn from the Xinjiang region”.

“The Adidas workplace standards strictly prohibit all forms of forced and prison labor and apply to all companies across our supply chain. The use of forced labor by any of our partners will result in the termination of the partnership,” he said.

What the brands said

just-style reached out to all the clothing and footwear brands mentioned in the report.

L Brands: “L Brands has a strict policy against the use of forced labor of any kind and will only work with suppliers that share our commitment to ethical and responsible business practices.  We recently required all suppliers to re-certify that they have received, read and understand our no forced labor policy, including the prohibition on the use of cotton from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and any other form of forced labor.”

Abercrombie & Fitch: “In 2019, as part of our regular review of our global supply chain, we decided to stop sourcing from this spinner from 2020 onwards for any of our company’s brands; we formally instructed our vendor not to source any material from this spinner.

“However, we did not have the opportunity to comment prior to publication on the only two other factories detailed in the report as our potential suppliers, but we followed up with ASPI to confirm that we do not believe we source from either of the factories listed as supplying us. As you may have seen, they made an update to its report today, 3/3, which now includes that statement on page 38 and 39.  

“As a company, we are committed to ensuring our products are only made in safe and responsible facilities, and we believe that business should only be conducted with honesty and respect for the dignity and rights of all people.”

H&M: “H&M Group strictly prohibits forced labour in our supply chain and we are deeply concerned by reports from civil society organisations and media that include accusations of involuntary labour from ethnoreligious minorities in Western China. All our direct suppliers sign our Sustainability Commitment that clearly spells out our expectations with regards to forced labour and discrimination linked to religion or ethnicity. We have a due diligence process in place that aims to identify and address any risks in our supply chain. Being well aware of the complexity of the situation, we are in close dialogue with human rights experts, other brands, and stakeholders, to evaluate how we can further strengthen our due diligence. While we take the accusations seriously, it’s crucial that any decisions and actions are based on input from human rights experts and with consideration to those affected.”

VF Corp: “Neither VF nor any of its brands have a relationship with Nanjing Synergy Textiles Co. Ltd. The report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute incorrectly states that The North Face brand has a relationship with Nanjing Synergy Textiles Co. Ltd. As a purpose-led organization dedicated to improving lives and the planet, we are deeply disturbed by the reports of human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang region. VF is committed to upholding internationally recognized human rights throughout our global supply chain, including prohibiting any kind of forced labor or modern slavery.”

ASPI’s recommendations for brands

Companies using forced Uyghurs labour in their supply chains could find themselves in breach of laws, which prohibit the importation of goods made with forced labour or mandate disclosure of forced labour supply chain risks. Each company listed in this report should: 

  • Conduct immediate and thorough human rights due diligence on its factory labour in China, including robust and independent social audits and inspections. The audits and inspections should include a stocktake of the conditions and current and ongoing safety of vulnerable workers;
  • If it finds that factories are implicated in forced labour, seek to use its leverage to address improper labour practices. In all cases where harm has occurred, it should take appropriate and immediate remedial action. Where it cannot, it should cease working with those factories;
  • Ensure that it is fully transparent as it seeks to address all potential harms, including by reporting its due diligence and audit findings publicly.

Click here to access the ASPI report.