A coalition of trade bodies representing US apparel and footwear brands and retailers has expressed its concern over continuing reports of alleged forced labour practices in China’s Xinjiang province – and is calling on the US government to help find a solution that protects the right of workers and the integrity of global supply chains.
The American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), and the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA) issued a joint statement noting: “As an industry representing brands and retailers, we do not tolerate forced labour in our supply chains.”
It adds: “We are deeply concerned by reports of forced labour and the treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minority workers in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and elsewhere in China. The reported situation is of a scale, scope, and complexity that is unprecedented during the modern era of global supply chains.”
Reports that garments were being made by forced labour in Xinjiang’s internment camps first emerged at the end of 2018. A clothing shipment was also detained by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) over similar concerns; and brands including H&M, Esprit, Adidas are among firms accused of being at the end of supply chains involving cotton products from Xinjiang.
Most recently a report was published last week by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) claiming more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang between 2017-19 to work in factories including those making garments and footwear.
A US commission is also urging members of Congress and President Donald Trump to impose trade sanctions on China; and the US Department of Homeland Security has published its first five-year strategy to prevent the import of goods produced with forced labour.
According to the coalition statement: “As acknowledged by both the US government and non-government experts, the conditions in Xinjiang and the treatment of ethnic minority workers from the region present profound challenges to the integrity of the global supply chain, including issues of transparency, access, and auditing. Accepting the status quo is not an option.
“Companies across the industry are considering all available approaches to address the situation. Brands and retailers are drawing on expert guidance and assembling industry stakeholders to address the situation. We are framing these actions through the lens of the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and our own commitment to the fair treatment of workers in our supply chains.
“Our members have expressed strong concerns to their suppliers and reiterated that suppliers must maintain a supply chain that is free of involuntary and forced labour.”
The statement also urges the US government to “immediately engage” a multi-stakeholder working group to develop and deploy a collective approach that accurately assesses the problem, and find constructive solutions that target bad actors and protect the rights of workers and the integrity of global supply chains.
Meanwhile, the Fair Labor Association adds it is “deeply troubled by credible reports of forced labour and other violations of fundamental human rights in the Xinjiang region of China.”
It says: “We call for an immediate end to these violations and pledge to work collaboratively with governments, civil society, unions, and multilateral organisations to achieve this goal.
“Forced labour in Xinjiang is having a negative impact on manufacturing in China and other parts of Asia because cotton and other raw materials are sourced from this region. Recent reports also describe government-mandated employment schemes for Uyghurs using forced labour outside of Xinjiang.
“We have directed our affiliates to review their direct and indirect sourcing relationships, identify alternative sourcing opportunities, and develop timebound plans to ensure that their sourcing is in line with the FLA’s principles. The FLA will engage with our affiliates as well as governments and other stakeholders to identify shared solutions to end these human rights violations.”
The situation is complicated by the fact that Xinjiang produces more than 80% of China’s cotton, so products linked to forced labour are likely to extend into the cotton-based yarns and textiles shipped to garment producers in countries across the region such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam. On top of this, most clothing brands and retailers only have limited visibility into their supply chains beyond the tier 1 factories where their clothes are made.