The persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang province in China is being denounced by human rights defenders. For more than five years now, China has indeed implemented a very repressive policy towards this Muslim minority. Today, more than a million Uyghurs are reportedly interned in forced labor camps. Beyond the involvement of the Chinese authorities, more than 180 NGOs are calling on clothing brands to take their responsibilities.
In a report published on 23 July, they estimate that about one in five cotton garments sold worldwide contains cotton or yarn from Xinjiang is linked to Uighur forced labor. Nike, Adidas, Patagonia, Puma, H&M, Calvin Klein, Amazon, Gap, Muji, Tommy Hilfiger… almost the entire garment industry is linked to these camps, according to research published by the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal, among others.
Some brands were quick to react. They write: “We take reports of inappropriate labor and social practices in any part of the garment and textile supply chain very seriously (…) We can confirm that Inditex has no business relationships with factories in Xinjiang.
“Continuing to produce in Xinjiang is irresponsible at best. At worst, complicit”.
“We can no longer ignore what is happening in Xinjiang, and this has a direct implication in the consumer goods that arrive on the European and American markets,” says Nayla Ajaltouni, the coordinator of Ethics on the Label, one of the 180 who initiated the appeal, in Libération. “When the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 (a textile factory, NDR), the companies said, ‘We didn’t know we were manufacturing there’. That’s true, and that’s the problem. Continuing to produce in Xinjiang is irresponsible at best. At worst, complicit,” she warns.
The 180 NGOs are calling on the multinationals to break all ties with companies involved in forced labor, to stop supplying cotton, yarn, textiles, and end products made by Uighurs, and to ban “outside the region the employment of Uighurs, Turkish or Muslim people sent under the Chinese government’s forced labor transfer program”.
Pinned down, several brands have decided to sever their ties with Xinjiang, such as H&M and Ikea, but “one of the real challenges is that clothing supply chains are now so complex that companies don’t even necessarily know who all their suppliers are, or even if they can identify all the suppliers. It’s hard for them to know that 80 percent of Chinese cotton is grown in Xinjiang,” analyses Sophie Richardson, China specialist at Human Rights Watch in Brut.