The Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) is urging the UK government to halt imports of products made with cotton produced through means of forced labour in China.
GLAN and WUC say they have “submitted extensive evidence” to the UK revenue and customs authorities (HMRC) which details the widespread use of forced labour involving China’s Uyghur people in its cotton industry. Their evidence cites a number of sources from press reports to leaked documents on detention centres.
The human rights organisations argue that current imports involve forced labour on such a scale that they violate a number of UK laws including 19th-century legislation prohibiting the importation of prison-made goods, and should be halted by the UK’s customs authorities.
GLAN and WUC say since 2017 authorities have systematically detained over one million Uyghur muslims in East Turkistan – the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – using a network of high-security ‘deextremification’ and prison camps. Its letter names H&M and Uniqlo as “openly sourcing cotton” in Xinjiang.
A spokesperson for H&M told just-style today (23 April) the group “strictly prohibits forced labour and any form of discrimination” in its supply chain and it is “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organisations and media that include accusations of forced labour and discrimination of ethnoreligious minorities in Xinjiang.
“All our direct suppliers sign our Sustainability Commitment that clearly states our expectations with regards to forced labour and discrimination linked to religion or ethnicity. We adopt our due diligence to the various parts of our supply chain – from manufacturing to farm level. We are committed to upholding international labour standards and we systematically conduct due diligence which aims to identify and address any risks in our supply chain. It is our most basic responsibility and essential for our business success. We are deeply committed to ensuring that the people who make our products have good working conditions and are treated with respect.
“We do not, and never have, worked with any garment manufacturing factories located in Xinjiang. We do not source products from this region – neither through first nor second-tier suppliers.
“Considering the complexity of the situation, we are in close contact with human rights experts, other brands, and stakeholders, to evaluate how we can further strengthen our due diligence and responsibly address the situation and in accordance with the UN Guiding Principles.”
Meanwhile, a company representative for Uniqlo-owner Fast Retailing told just-style the firm is “deeply troubled by reports and articles raising serious concerns on the situation for Uighurs in China.
“At the same time, we wish to re-emphasise, as we have stated in the past, that no Uniqlo product is manufactured in the Xinjiang region. Moreover, Uniqlo production partners must commit to our strict company code of conduct, which covers human and worker rights. We require all production partners to uphold the same standards set out in our code of conduct with any of their upstream partners.
“Through mechanisms Uniqlo has in place to identify potential violations of human and worker rights, we have not learned of any of the issues raised in past reports or articles. We continue to communicate with our production partners about the workforce in their supply chains, in order to ensure our products are being produced in ethical environments.”
The GLAN/WUC letter says unless companies can produce evidence dislodging a presumption that Xinjiang cotton products have been produced in whole, or in part, by forced labourers, the UK authorities should suspend the importation of their products.
The letter submitted to HMRC by WUC and GLAN proposes that the imports breach a number of important legal principles in the UK. The UK’s Foreign Prison-Made Goods Act 1897 prohibits the importation of goods produced in foreign prisons, and it is also suggested that the importation of the cotton might put the authorities at risk of falling foul of criminal legislation, notably the Proceeds of Crime Act and the Serious Crime Act.
“Given the UK Government’s strong stance on modern slavery and on China’s violations of the human rights of the Uyghur people, we hope the UK authorities take the necessary steps to prevent the importation of goods that are directly derived from the forced labour of an incarcerated people,” says Dr Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of GLAN.
Dr Eva Pils, legal advisor to GLAN and professor of law at The Dickson Poon School of Law at King’s College London, adds: “China’s abuses in the XUAR are shocking and raise many urgent questions, including that of liability for crimes against humanity, but also including the problem of apparently widespread use of forced labour in facilities holding people against their will. Other governments, including the UK government, have criticised the Chinese government, and this is important. But they must also avoid complicity in abuses by allowing goods using forced labour to be imported. GLAN argues that the UK government has a legal responsibility to address this end of the problem.”
At the end of last month, The Better Cotton Initiative suspended its activities in Xinjiang in China on the back of concerns over the prevalence of labour abuses in the region.
Earlier, a study 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.
Following this, a coalition of trade bodies representing US apparel and footwear brands and retailers called on the US government to help find a solution that protects the right of workers and the integrity of global supply chains, leading to US lawmakers proposing legislation to ban goods made with forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region from entering the country.