Hong-Kong headquartered Esquel Group, one of the world’s leading shirt makers, has hit back at allegations from the US government its Chinese spinning mill is engaged in forced labour of Uyghurs.

The Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) yesterday (20 July) published a list of 11 Chinese entities allegedly implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, three of which are textile and garment factories.

The Entity List features companies that are allegedly implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labour, involuntary collection of biometric data, and genetic analyses targeted at Muslim minority groups from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). 

The Entity List is a tool utilised by BIS to restrict the export, re-export, and transfer (in-country) of items subject to the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) to persons (individuals, organisations, companies) reasonably believed to be involved, or to pose a significant risk of becoming involved, in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the US. Additional license requirements apply to exports, re-exports, and transfers (in-country) of items subject to the EAR to listed entities, and the availability of most license exceptions is limited. 

“Beijing actively promotes the reprehensible practice of forced labour and abusive DNA collection and analysis schemes to repress its citizens,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “This action will ensure that our goods and technologies are not used in the Chinese Communist Party’s despicable offensive against defenceless Muslim minority populations.”

Three of the 11 were textile mills including Changji Esquel Textile Co Ltd; Hetian Taida Apparel Co Ltd – which had previously supplied US sportswear maker Badger Sport until it was dropped following an investigation – and Yangtze River Delta-based exporter Nanjing Synergy Textiles Co. Ltd.

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In a letter to the Commerce Secretary, Esquel CEO John Cheh, said the company had been “falsely associated with forced labour” and requested its mill be removed from the list immediately.

Esquel has a history of over 25 years in Xinjiang and says it is proud of its work in the region. “We are an ethical company that has worked with local and global partners to protect the environment, empower women and provide high-paying jobs. Our record demonstrates that Esquel has been a long-time ally of the Uyghur people.

“The Apil 2017 Uyghur Human Rights Project Report recognised us “perhaps as the only overseas company that has attested to follow through to corporate pledges to hire Uyghurs is Esquel. The company makes a concerted effort not only to hire Uyghur graduates in its local operation but also maintains a foundation to support Uyghur schools.”

Esquel said out of a total Xinjiang workforce of 1,343 at the end of 2019, the firm had 420 Uyghur employees, 58 of which have been with the company for more than ten years. Of that group, 16 for more than 20 years.

“We have these long term relationships because we pay and treat our employees well. The simple fact that we hire Uyghur workers in Xinjiang should in no way be equated with using forced labour.

Cheh added: “Let me be clear: Esquel does not use forced labour, and we never will use forced labour. We absolutely and categorically oppose forced labour. It is abhorrent and completely antithetical to Esquel’s principles and business practices.

“We ask that those who would accuse us of using forced labour present evidence to support their allegations. Where is the evidence that Esquel has ever, in its 25 years of operations in Xinjiang, used forced labour? No agency of any government nor any non-governmental organisation has presented such evidence, because it does not exist. In the lead up to including our Changji mill on the entity list, no one from the Commerce Department spoke with anyone at Esquel or we would have gladly provided them with the facts and answered any questions at that time.

“We entirely support combating the use of forced labour. That is why we are so offended and upset to be linked to the practice. However, false accusations against our company do not advance the critically important efforts to address real wrongdoing.”

According to Reuters reporting from a daily press briefing with China’s Foreign Ministry today (21 July), China has accused the US of abusing export control measures and said it firmly opposed the move and will take all necessary measures to ensure the legitimate rights of Chinese firms.