Despite international pressure and some action by the U.S. government, many companies – including American brands – continue to depend on forced labor in the Xinjiang region to make their products, advocates say.
Earlier this year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) put forth a groundbreaking report calling out dozens of well-known global companies in the apparel, automotive and technology sectors for using the forced labor of the Uyghur people in making their products.
It really was a who’s who of A-list brands, and plenty of American companies were on the list, including Apple, Amazon, Gap, Nike, Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein, Carter’s, Dell, General Motors, Google, L.L. Bean, Polo Ralph Lauren and Victoria’s Secret. Chinese state-owned companies like CRRC, BYD, and ZTE also were named.
In the months since, it’s only become clearer that China’s authoritarian government is overseeing a cultural genocide of the Uyghur people and other Muslim-majority peoples in the Xinjiang region. More than 1 million Uyghurs have been forced into internment camps; their language has been banned in schools in Xinjiang. Practicing Islam is discouraged. Many people have been tortured. Countless families have been torn apart; there’s evidence that widespread forced sterilization of Uyghur women is taking place.
On top of these alleged atrocities, ASPI estimated in March that at least 80,000 Uyghurs – the actual number is likely far more — had been transferred out of the camps in Xinjiang to work in factories across China, many of them to make products for Western companies.
There’s been a flood of criticism against China for its actions in Xinjiang – some notable exceptions notwithstanding – and the U.S. government has begun to seize some imports of products from Xinjiang that are suspected to have been made with forced labor. The House also recently passed legislation to stop these imports from entering the United States.
But Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made clear his government is staying on course. Sadly, with much of the world still coping with the coronavirus pandemic, it doesn’t appear there will be the type of coordinated, international effort needed to seriously pressure China to stop the genocide.
But there is another way to help the Uyghur people, which brings us back to all those big-name brands above.
In July, more than 180 organizations from around the world came together to issue a call to action to urge “apparel brands and retailers to stop using forced labour” in Xinjiang “and end their complicity in the Chinese government’s human rights abuses.”
The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region noted that “leading apparel brands are bolstering and benefiting from the government’s assault on the peoples of the region.”
The coalition continued:
“Brands continue to source millions of tons of cotton and yarn from the Uyghur Region. Roughly 1 in 5 cotton garments sold globally contains cotton and/or yarn from the Uyghur Region; it is virtually certain that many of these goods are tainted with forced labour. Moreover, apparel brands maintain lucrative partnerships with Chinese corporations implicated in forced labour, including those that benefit from the forced labour transfer of victims from the Uyghur Region to work in factories across China.”
It’s important to note that outsourcing makes it hard for companies to know if their products have been made with unforced labor. As the New York Times reported, forced labor could happen at many points during the making of a product, from “growing and picking of cotton, the production of thread and fabric, and the manufacturing of the finished item.”
And in reality, that means that “virtually the entire apparel and footware industry is tainted by forced Uyghur and Turkic Muslim Labour,” the coalition noted.
But that’s not an excuse. Companies must be expected to do everything in their power to ensure that their products are not made with forced labor.
Sadly, only a handful of companies have pledged to stop utilizing labor in Xinjiang, including Adidas, Lacoste and H&M. But the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region is continuing its efforts, saying it will won’t let up pressure on the companies who haven’t taken action.
The coalition recently published a list of the companies that “have not yet taken all credible steps” to stop using forced Uyghur labor, by the way. It’s long.
Cathalijne Adams contributed to this post.