Uyghur Forced Labour : Is It Time For Fashion To Boycott China?

Image: Uyghur women in traditional dress (via Thoughts of an Uyghur)

Human rights violations have long been an issue in China, but the Uyghur forced labour program may have finally crossed the line for fashion brands.

Published 15th October 2020 by Nicole Obidowski

Forget about Paris or Milan – today it is China that truly dominates fashion. It has long been the top exporting nation of apparel goods, accounting for 30.8% of all global apparel exports in 2019. To put that into perspective, the next individual country on the list, Bangladesh, sits way behind at 6.8%.

Since offshoring began in earnest, China has built a vast base of highly skilled workers while expertise in garment manufacturing has been disappearing from western countries. China can now produce any type of apparel goods to premium luxury standards, and some specialist machinery can only be found in Chinese factories.

China also has a long history of human rights abuses, now accelerating under president Xi Jinping. The treatment of the Uyghur people, documented in recent years through painstaking international research, is perhaps the most concerning. In an effort that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) claims is designed to prevent religious extremism, an estimated 1.5–1.8 million Uyghur people have been detained in so-called “re-education camps” in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northern China, the largest internment of a minority group since WWII. Uyghurs are required to abandon their families and their culture to assimilate into the Han majority, while mass sterilization campaigns are being uncovered that meet the UN definition of genocide.

Many Uyghur people, on graduating from the detention camps, are subsequently forced into low-paid employment throughout Xinjiang. This is where the fashion industry becomes directly complicit. 84% of Chinese cotton is grown in Xinjiang, and the region is the base for many garment factories. Both of these industries have been among those found using Uyghur forced labour.

The opaque nature of the fashion supply chain, coupled with the secretive and evolving Uyghur situation, is creating a very difficult landscape to navigate for apparel companies. In addition to recent public pressure and consumer outrage, the United States has recently passed a bill which will ban the import of goods manufactured in Xinjiang, under the presumption that they have been made with the use of forced labour. Under this bill, such goods can only be imported if the brand can prove there was no such forced labour – but this will be a difficult task.

In order to provide such proof, the standard procedure would be to undertake an independent audit of the manufacturers. However, supply chain auditors have begun to refuse operating in Xinjiang, unwilling to potentially provide a false impression of due diligence in such a deliberately opaque environment. Therefore (presuming this bill goes through as it seems set to) importing goods from Xinjiang into the American market is about to become nearly impossible.

Calls continue to grow for fashion brands to withdraw from Xinjiang factories and stop sourcing cotton fabric from Chinese mills. But will these steps go far enough in ensuring your label has no connection to the persecution of Uyghur people?

Xinjiang Cotton

Xinjiang cotton doesn’t just make up 84% of Chinese cotton production – it also accounts for 20% of the worlds supply. This means 1 in 5 cotton textiles is knit or woven using cotton harvested in the Uyghur Region, as cotton fibres from Xinjiang farms are exported all over the world.

The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corporation (XPCC), a vast paramilitary organization under the direct rule of central government, dominates the cotton industry in Xinjiang. As well as running cotton farms, the XPCC also operates Uyghur internment camps and for decades has been a vehicle for the CCP’s efforts to settle ethnic Han Chinese into Xinjiang, in order to dominate pre-existing Uyghur populations through a process known as Sinification.

Even if the individual XPCC farm is not directly employing any Uyghur forced labour, the profits from the purchase of that cotton are being fed back into running the detention camps. While some XPCC farms clearly operate as such, others are run through subsidiary companies, under names that do not mention the XPCC at all. This situation makes it very difficult to trust any Xinjiang cotton as “clean”.

Transparency in the fashion supply chain is a relatively new ideal, and until now it has not been the norm for brands or even suppliers to trace the source of their raw materials back as far as the farm. Most mills deal only with the final stages of their product, purchasing ready-made yarns from a separate entity, which in turn sourced it’s fibres from yet another organisation. It is therefore easily conceivable that mills in Europe and around the world are unknowingly selling fabrics made of cotton that originates from Xinjiang Uyghur forced labour.

The situation with the Uyghurs highlights the urgent need for supply chain transparency to be adopted much more widely, and for the fashion industry to take more of an interest in the political situations of the countries from which they source. The Chinese are not the only country to use forced labour in modern cotton farming. The government of Uzbekistan, another top cotton exporting nation, has for years forced millions of it’s citizens, including children, to grow and harvest cotton in harsh and sometimes deadly conditions.

For fashion brands seeking to do the right thing, it has never been more imperative to ask after the origins of the textiles they source, all the way back to the farm level. Some mills may have trouble supplying this information, but if more of their customers demanded it, they would have an incentive to start keeping these details on file.

Muji Xinjiang Cotton
Image: Muji website

Certification Has Failed

One could be forgiven for thinking that using Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) or certified organic cotton would prevent these kinds of human rights issues in the supply chain. Unfortunately that is not necessarily the case. In fact, Xinjiang produces 98.5 per cent of Chinese organic cotton, and one sixth of all global organic cotton.

The Textile Exchange (TE), owners of the Organic Cotton Standard (OCS), have been championing Xinjiang cotton as some of the most sustainable in the world, and have even included overtly XPCC-run farms in their preferred suppliers lists as recently as this year. This has led to “Xinjiang cotton” being turned into a marketing pitch, used proudly by large brands such as Muji and Uniqlo as recently as this spring.

Both TE and BCI have been accused of having close financial ties to both Shell petroleum and the XPCC, which if true is deeply concerning. However, the main issue with Xinjiang organic cotton stems from the fact that today’s main organic standards, including both OCS and the more stringent GOTS certification, apply only to activities undertaken post-harvesting. The fibres must come from certified organic farms, but growing and harvesting activities are not necessarily scrutinized during the certification process. As such, additional checks regarding labour rights are not taken out at the farm level.

As chain of custody schemes, OCS or GOTS certification should mean that the geographical origin of the cotton fibre will at least be easily accessible. In the case of GOTS it should also preclude problematic labour practices from the ginning, spinning, weaving and wet processing stages. But it will be up to the brand to check after the fibre origin, rather than assume that because it is organic it is completely free of forced labour.

Xinjiang Labour Transfer
Baidu HR Forum, Nov 2019 (screenshot translated by ASPI)

“Poverty Alleviation” Labour Transfer Scheme

While recent media focus has been on the Xinjiang region, the CCP-propelled “industry-based poverty alleviation” scheme, also referred to as “Industrial Xinjiang Aid”, has been exporting Uyghur forced labour to the rest of China.

It is estimated that between 2017 and 2019, around 80,000 Uyghur workers were transferred out of Xinjiang to work across the country under this new government-led labour transfer scheme. The goal is to place a million workers in textile and garment industries by 2023, with 650,000 of them coming from Uyghur majority areas. Recent video evidence shows such transfers continuing even during strict Covid-19 lockdowns.

The CCP claims that such labour is voluntary, and Uyghur workers reportedly sign contracts confirming they are entering into employment of their own free will. In reality, however, it is impossible for Uyghurs to refuse these work assignments as the threat of arbitrary detention hangs over any citizen who does not comply.

These forced labour programs are designed as an extension of the detention state. Uyghurs sent to factories outside of Xinjiang are assigned minders, and their movements are put under constant surveillance. They live in segregated dormitories and their after work hours must be spent studying mandarin and undertaking ideological training. Some of the factories they are placed in – again, factories outside of Xinjiang – are equipped with watchtowers, barbed-wire fences and police guard boxes.

Worker interviews, essential to any labour rights investigation, cannot generate reliable information, as workers cannot speak candidly without placing themselves or their families at risk. For this reason, auditing for Uyghur forced labour is notoriously difficult, if not impossible.

As the Uyghur “poverty alleviation” system continues to expand throughout China, it will become more and more difficult to ensure that manufacturing anywhere in the country is free of forced labour.

Right now, there is near certainty that any brand sourcing apparel, textiles, yarn or cotton from the Uyghur Region is profiting from human rights violations, including forced labour, both in the Uyghur Region and more broadly throughout China
Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour

Call To Action

The Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour, a campaign formed of civil society organizations and trade unions, has created a Call to Action for apparel companies to follow in order to ensure that they are not supporting or benefiting from the forced labour of the Uyghur population. It lays out steps brands must take to completely withdraw any direct or indirect support for Uyghur forced labour in their supply chains.

The Call to Action is rightly focused on large, influential corporations, but this makes it a difficult framework to follow for a small, independent label. Steering clear of factories and mills based in Xinjiang is one thing, but with proper auditing both expensive and nearly impossible, most emerging designers would have to rely on the promises of Chinese suppliers in other regions not to engage with labour transfer schemes from the Uyghur Region.

Relying simply on trust concerning these types of issues is not desirable. Even if the factory owners have the best of intentions, it’s difficult to predict whether there could be future incentives or even coercion from the CCP to encourage more factories outside of Xinjiang to cooperate with labour transfer schemes.

Uyghur History Dancer
Uyghur dancer in Siniang, China, 1943 (Photographed by William Vandivert)

The Uyghur situation has thrown up so many questions. How could forced labour on such a huge scale go undetected by so many brands for so many years? Why has China identified the apparel industry as a natural home for it’s forced labour initiative? How could cotton harvested by the forced labour of a brutally oppressed ethnic minority be promoted as “preferred” year after year by industry leaders in sustainability?

At this point, China has become so central to the industry that many brands can’t imagine continuing their operations without Chinese mills or factories. Yet for most small brands who are serious about taking action, the answer will indeed be to terminate any manufacturing anywhere in China. It will also be important to trace back all cotton materials – including organic cotton – back to their fibre origin, and reject any that have passed through China in the extended supply chain.

The effort required to remove China from your supply chain may seem painstaking, and it may feel unfair to perfectly innocent factory partners, who are not responsible for their government’s actions. However, it seems clear that the CCP will continue it’s systemic oppression of Uyghur people for as long as it is economically rewarded for doing so.

Ultimately, for brands to accept the possibility of profiting from the persecution of an ethnic minority is simply unconscionable.