The UK Parliament is holding a hearing today (5 November) to determine the extent to which business in the UK are exploiting the forced labour of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China.

Companies operating in the UK that were called to submit evidence include adidas, Amazon, Boohoo Group, Gap (Gap Inc), H&M Group, Ikea, Marks and Spencer, NIKE, Puma, Stella McCartney, The North Face (VF Corporation), The Walt Disney Company, TikTok (ByteDance), Victoria’s Secret, and Zara (Inditex).

The companies are facing direct scrutiny of their supply chains. Apparel brands source millions of tonnes of cotton and yarn from the Uyghur Region, Xinjiang, with one in five cotton garments sold to consumers globally containing material from the region.

The inquiry was launched by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee in September. It comes amidst growing recognition of what the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region calls the “vast system of forced labour, affecting factories and farms across the region and China, where the Chinese government has rounded up roughly 1-1.8m Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim people into internment camps.”

The organisation adds: “It is the largest internment on the basis of ethnic and religious identity since World War II. Abuses include sterilisation, forced labour, family separation, mass arbitrary detention, and imprisonment.”

Members and endorsers of the 300-plus Coalition to End Forced Uyghur Labor, including Anti-Slavery International, CORE Coalition, Labour behind the Label, Rene Cassin, Trade Union Congress and World Uyghur Congress, submitted testimony in advance.

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The signatories to the submission have urged the UK government to take urgent action to ensure that businesses operating in the UK are not benefitting from the abuses of the Uyghurs.

“The UK government must act upon the submission by Global Legal Action Network and World Uyghur Congress in April 2020 to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), requesting the suspension of the import of products produced in part or in whole in the Uyghur Region through the Foreign Prison-Made Goods Act 1897,” a statement from the Coalition says.

Signatories have also called for the UK government to urgently introduce legislation that compels UK businesses to prevent human rights abuses in their supply chains, holding them liable if they fail to do so.

At the end of last month, The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) called an immediate halt to all field-level activities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China, where ongoing allegations of forced labour and other human rights abuses “have contributed to an increasingly untenable operating environment.” 

BCI, which trains farmers on more sustainable cotton production, suspended its licensing and assurance activities in the XUAR in March, meaning there is now no new licensed Better Cotton coming from the region. 

The US is forging ahead with moves to tackle the import of apparel and other goods from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and has earmarked China as a global hotspot for goods made using forced labour

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (H.R. 6210), which cleared a House vote in September, establishes the legal presumption that any products arriving at US ports that were manufactured in the Uyghur Region, or containing inputs from the region, were made using forced labour. Unless the importer can prove there was no forced labour used in its production, the product is considered illegal and is barred from entering the US.

However, the CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association has warned a total US import ban on cotton products from the Xinjiang region over forced labour concerns would “wreak unending havoc” on global supply chains.

Click here for brand responses to the initial news of the investigation.