200 organizations called on apparel brands to stop supporting forced labor in Xinjiang
After the US imposed sanctions on 11 Chinese companies for its roles in the persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, more than 200 human rights and labor rights organizations launched a global coalition on Thursday, calling on all apparel brands and retailers to stop using forced labor in Xinjiang, and end their complicity in Beijing’s human rights abuses.
On July 23, more than 200 labor rights and human rights groups around the world unveiled a global coalition called “End Uyghur Forced Labor,” asking all apparel brands and retailers to cut ties with suppliers implicated in the forced labor and end all sourcing from Xinjiang. These include cotton and finished garments.
“Now is the time for real action from brands, governments and international bodies — not empty declarations,” said Jasmine O’Connor, CEO of Anti-Slavery International. “To end the slavery and horrific abuses of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim peoples by the Chinese government, brands must ensure their supply chains are not linked to the atrocities against these people. The only way brands can ensure they are not profiting from the exploitation is by exiting the region and ending relationships with suppliers propping up this Chinese government system.”
Over the last few months, international media outlets and think tanks have revealed large amount of evidence that showed how the Chinese government is transferring large numbers of Uyghurs from re-education camps in Xinjiang to factories in Xinjiang and other parts of China through a forced labor program.
In March, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report which indicates that at least 80,000 Uyghurs have been systematically transferred to at least 27 factories located in 9 different provinces in China. This is part of the forced labor program launched by the Chinese government.
The report also highlights that at least 83 international companies’ supply chains have used materials from these 27 Chinese factories, and these international brands include global apparel brands like Nike, Adidas, Zara and Gap.
James Leibold, one of the report’s authors and an associate professor at Australia’s La Trobe University, said the forced labor program is an extension of the re-education camps in Xinjiang, and he thinks that the reason why the Xinjiang government began to transfer Uyghurs from the camps to factories might be because Beijing is concerned about its slowed economic growth.
“Companies should immediately undertake a thorough and transparent due-diligence process to determine if, and to what extent, supply chains have been exposed to any form of forced labor,” said Leibold. “This needs to be done not by acting parent companies in China, but by bringing in independent outside observers to do a full audit on the supply chain and the manufacturing process.”
Additionally, Chinese state media CCTV reported in May that the Chinese government has launched a poverty alleviation program across Xinjiang since 2020, and between January and April, a total of 292,000 people from poor families in Xinjiang have participated in the program.
The report also pointed out that the Xinjiang government plans to run the program for the next three years and they will transfer 11,000 labor forces from 22 “deeply poor” counties in Xinjiang to work at state-owned businesses, the textile companies and construction companies.
Darren Byler, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, said governments around the world should devote more resources to research related to China’s persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, since relevant information can be traced, unveiled and analyzed through information on WeChat or articles in China’s state-run media outlets.
Calling on all brands to cut ties with forced labor in Xinjiang
According to the “End Uyghur Forced Labor,” apparel brands continue to source millions of tons of cotton and yarn from Xinjiang, and roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from Xinjiang. “Apparel brands maintain lucrative partnerships with Chinese corporations implicated in forced labor, including those that benefit from the forced labor transfer of victims from Xinjiang to work in factories across China,” the coalition wrote in a statement.
“Given the lack of leverage and the inability to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts, apparel brands and retailers must take the necessary steps to end business relationships connected to the Uyghur Region in order to fulfill their responsibility to respect human rights as defined by the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” said David Schilling, Senior Program Director of Human Rights at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.
In order to convince all apparel brands to sign up to the initiative, the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition proposed three call-to-actions for all brands. They ask all apparel brands and retailers to stop sourcing cotton, yarn, textiles, and finished products from Xinjiang. They said in order to achieve this, it requires brands to direct all factories that supply them with these materials not to use cotton or yarn from the region.
Additionally, they also ask all apparel brands to cut ties with companies implicated in forced labors, especially Chinese companies that have operations in Xinjiang and have accepted government subsidies. Also, they ask brands to prohibit any supplier factories located outside Xinjiang from using Uyghurs or other muslim minorities through the forced labor transfer scheme initiated by the government.
Peter Irwin, the Senior Program Officer for Advocacy and Communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said the coalition hopes pressure from governments won’t be required to push brands over the finish line. However, he highlights that this will depend on progress on commitments to exiting the Uyghur region.
“Brands are answerable to governments, but this is often less effective given complex supply chains and international business,” Irwin said. “These companies have an obligation to their consumers and to their own CSR commitments that make clear that forced labour is bad and must be avoided, period.”
Additionally, Johnson Yeung, the urgent appeal coordinator for Clean Clothes Campaign, said regardless of what governments are doing, apparel and home goods brands and retailers shouldn’t be using forced labor and lending economic support to repression.
“Government in the Europe is slowly developing framework of corporate responsibility in human rights due diligence,” Yeung said. “However, East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea are far from this step. As East Asia becomes a bigger apparel market, brands have to proactively prevent human rights violations from happening, regardless of what government policies are.”
This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.