Sourcing from Uighur forced labor is so prevalent in the global fashion industry. Human rights groups have estimated that as many as one in five cotton products sold worldwide is outcomes of the human rights violations occurring in Xinjiang. More than 30% of U.S. apparel imports from China. This means your clothes probably come from the region. Thus, incarcerated people may have partially produced them. Uighur forced labor links to supply chains around the world. Governments and companies bear a social responsibility to uphold international labor standards.
Difficulties with Regulation
Uighur forced labor is difficult to regulate. This is because brands may unwittingly be promoting the conditions of incarceration and cultural erasure. Brands may indirectly benefit from the use of Uighur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labor transfer programs. Cotton is routed to neighboring countries before arriving in the United States. This obscures the supply chain’s traceability. Leonie Barrie is an apparel analyst at the international analytics firm GlobalData. He speaks to this point of why eliminating Xinjiang cotton proves difficult and says, “we’re talking about multiple touchpoints along the supply chain.”
Information inconsistencies further complicate sourcing. False claims hinder activists who push for change from accurately linking brands to the factories. For instance, with Adidas, “one factory in Xinjiang has a giant billboard of Adidas on their premises,” explained Danielle Cave, a deputy director at ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Yet, Adidas denied having ties to the manufacturer. This obscurity with corroborating the statements of brands and manufacturers is a long-existing problem. Auditors and activists who combat issues of labor exploitation in the fashion industry have to face this issue.
Still, brands themselves prove reluctant to enact the full-scale changes necessary for living up to their ethical manufacturing commitments. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute published a report naming 83 brands that had “directly or indirectly benefited from the use of Uighur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labor transfer programs as recently as 2019.” The list included popular American brands such as Adidas, Calvin Klein, L.L. Bean, Zara and Uniqlo. When these companies responded to the claims, few explicitly confirmed whether they used Xinjiang cotton. Instead, they redirected towards their participation in organizations that promote ethical fashion.
Redirecting the Conversation
An example of brands redirecting the conversation is Nike’s reaction to The Washington Post’s story. The story was on a supplier Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co, and their apparent use of forced Uighur labor in a central factory for Nike products. A spokesperson for Nike did not deny the claims. They claimed the company was “committed to upholding international labor standards globally.” They did not give action steps on following up on that commitment. Furthermore, even companies with rigorous corporate social-responsibility guidelines may employ Uighur forced labor, whether they are aware of it or not.
Where Change is Coming From
Change, however, is coming from a different direction: lawmakers and the activists behind them. On July 9, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned regional officials and a security agency for detaining over one million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in these forced labor camps. Prisoners could not practice Islam and underwent sterilization practices. Two new laws are also working through the United States Congress and the European Parliament. They prevent the import of goods made from forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region.
Such legislation could set a precedent for future laws that weed out forced labor from supply chains. However, simply preventing these imports from reaching the U.S. is only a temporary solution. To prevent Uighur forced labor from spreading to other markets, we must take a universal stance against exploitative practices and muddled supply chains.
– Christine Mui