Week of 27 July 2020
Since 2017, over 1 million Uyghurs have been detained in ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang, China, and forced to work in factories that supply companies – including in the apparel and textiles sector and food sector. A coalition of organizations and trade unions calls on companies to trace their supply chains and end sourcing of goods produced with forced labour (Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region)
The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region has issued a call to action for companies that source or manufacture apparel and textiles, asking them to sign onto a statement committing to “ensure that they are not supporting or benefiting from the pervasive and extensive forced labour of the Uyghur population and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples, perpetrated by the Chinese government.”
A company that signs up to the call to action commits to identifying and mapping suppliers and sub-suppliers:
- with any production facilities located in the Uyghur Region making apparel and other cotton-based goods;
- based outside the Uyghur Region that have subsidiaries or operations located in the Uyghur Region that have accepted Chinese government subsidies and/or employed workers provided by the government – including where the actual products the supplier makes for the company are not produced in the Uyghur Region;
- outside the Uyghur Region that have employed workers from the Uyghur Region sent by the government – including in the case of suppliers with multiple factories/workplaces, where the specific factory/workplace providing goods to the company does not employ workers from the Uyghur Region sent by the government; and
- in China as well as globally that source inputs produced in the Uyghur Region (e.g. fabric, yarn, cotton).
Where these business relationships are found, a signatory is asked to “operate on the assumption that its supply chain is linked to the forced labour of Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim-majority groups.”
In this case, signatories are expected to disengage, except for certain pre-defined circumstances (e.g. where suppliers outside the Uyghur Region stop employment of workers from the Uyghur Region and remediation is provided to workers). Signatories are also asked to “agree to appropriate remedial action, endorsed by the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, including but not limited to compensation to affected workers.” The call to action requests that such actions be taken within 365 days, with regular reporting and a time-bound plan supporting progress throughout the year.
The Coalition is made up of over 190 civil society organisations and trade unions across 36 countries advocating against human rights abuses of people from the Uyghur Region in China, including AFL-CIO, Anti-Slavery International, Clean Clothes Campaign, Cotton Campaign, Freedom United, Global Labor Justice – International Labor Rights Forum, Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Worker Rights Consortium, Norwegian Uyghur Committee, Uyghur American Association, Uyghur Human Rights Project, and World Uyghur Congress.
The Coalition’s call to action comes as apparel and textiles companies have come under increasing scrutiny for their link to cotton and other products made by Uyghur workers in the Xinjiang region of China. The Chinese government has imprisoned and detained thousands of members of the Uyghur Muslim minority and forced them to work in factories producing goods for Chinese and overseas markets, among other egregious violations of their human rights. The scope and scale of the violations are increasingly being investigated and shared publicly.
Severe human rights violations committed against Uyghurs:
- The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) reports that “[s]ince 2017, more than a million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minorities have disappeared into a vast network of ‘re-education camps’ in the far west region of Xinjiang, in what some experts call a systematic, government-led program of cultural genocide.” ASPI found that “detainees are subjected to political indoctrination, forced to renounce their religion and culture and, in some instances, reportedly subjected to torture.”
- The New York Times investigated claims by the Chinese government that Uyghurs work voluntarily, finding that Uyghurs are coerced into working for poor or no wages under harsh conditions. They are often separated from their families, forced to sign binding contracts limiting their rights, and are unable to leave their jobs at will. For example, “In Yanqi County in the region’s north, workers sent from the south are not allowed to quit unless they get written permission from several officials, according to rules by the local government.”
- In July 2020, a group of exiled Uyghur activists brought a claim to the International Criminal Court, alleging that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity. The Guardian reports that “the filing urges the court to investigate crimes committed against Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Turkic peoples including disappearances, mass internment, forced transfer of children from their families to state orphanages, measures to eliminate Turkic languages, mass surveillance and other crimes.”
Forced labour in Xinjiang linked to Western supply chains:
- ASPI found that “more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019, and some of them were sent directly from detention camps.” According to ASPI, these factories are “part of the supply chain of 82 well-known global brands.”
- The Center for Strategic International Studies found that forced labour in Xinjiang is linked to the supply chain of Western brands through a series of complex intermediary steps. Although “[f]ew products ship directly from Xinjiang to the United States … Xinjiang produces more than 80 percent of China’s cotton. China, in turn, is one of the world’s largest cotton producers, representing around 22 percent of the global market in 2018-19, with much of the cotton at least partially processed within China. Some of the cotton is transformed into yarn and textiles inside Xinjiang, while much is sent on for processing in other regions of China, with a smaller percentage going to neighboring countries and then shipped to the United States. More than 30 percent of U.S. apparel imports come from China.” Ultimately, according to The New York Times, around “one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from the Xinjiang region in northwestern China.”
- According to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Western brands are linked to human rights abuses in Xinjiang through their supply chains, including Adidas, H&M, Kraft Heinz Co., Coca-Cola, Gap Inc., Esprit, and PVH Corp., among others. The WSJ reports that some companies are choosing to end all sourcing from the region, ranging from cotton to tomatoes to sugar; however opaque supply chains can make it difficult for retailers to identify the source of their products and some retailers WSJ spoke to either denied that, or did not know whether, they had goods from Xinjiang in their supply chains.
- The Fair Labor Association (FLA) details the challenges for upstream purchasers of identifying Xinjiang forced labour in supply chains. A key challenge for companies is limitations on due diligence and remediation: “In the case of Xinjiang … companies cannot rely on normal due diligence activities to either confirm—or rule out—the presence of forced labor” due to restricted access of auditors and labor investigators to factories, workers’ inability to communicate freely with auditors, and a lack of effective remediation options given that the Chinese government “controls recruitment of affected workers.” FLA shares a series of recommendations for companies to identify the risks of Xinjiang forced labour in their supply chains and to remedy human rights impacts.