A new report from the Citizen Power Initiatives for China highlights the growing use of forced labor in the cotton and garment industry in Xinjiang, the westernmost region of China. This region is responsible for 84 percent of China’s cotton production (including the cotton field shown above) and therein has deep interconnections to global supply chains. The report’s authors say they found evidence of forced labor being used during cultivation at cotton farms; the harvesting and processing of cotton; and during garment production throughout the vast region.
This is just the latest worrying news from the region. What is happening in Xinjiang, homeland of the mostly Muslim Turkic Uyghur people, is considered by some to be the worst human rights crisis of the century. The most recent wave of repression can be tied the riots that broke out in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in July of 2009. Around 200 people died, and the Chinese government soon ordered thousands of troops to be stationed there in order to militarize the region.
Since then, the human rights situation has become even worse. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has given regional leaders the freedom to take whatever measures they wanted to suppress Uyghur dissent, with a seemingly unlimited flow of financial resources. The result is today’s dark reality – an Orwellian tech surveillance state and now a massive network of concentration camps that hold somewhere between 500,000 and 3 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities – the vast majority of whom were never tried in any court and committed no crime.
“The situation in Xinjiang and China’s treatment of its Uyghur Minority is beyond abhorrent,” said Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) in a November 2018 public statement. “[We should] not turn a blind eye as a million Muslims are unjustly imprisoned and forced into labor camps by an autocratic regime.”
Unfortunately, Menendez has been one of the few voices in Washington D.C. speaking up for Uyghurs. Despite the mounting evidence, the international response has been lacking for many reasons. One is that China has near-total control of information flows between Xinjiang and abroad, due partly to the Great Firewall but also its ability to rapidly censor content on Chinese social media apps such as WeChat or Weibo. The country is also the largest trade partner with most of the world’s nations, and it uses those relationships to buy influence. In the past, China has also withheld trade to hurt countries who upset it politically, such as South Korea.
Reporting in the region has also become increasingly difficult. Journalists have reported intimidation, coercion, and pervasive surveillance when in Xinjiang. The few who have been able to file reports, such as Buzzfeed’s Megha Rajagopalan, who revealed conditions in the frightening 21st century police state, or French journalist Ursula Gauthier, who first exposed China’s crimes in 2015, found themselves evicted or denied visas.
“We should demand answers to the severity of human rights violations in Xinjiang.” said Michael Caster, a human rights advocate, researcher, and civil society consultant, in a public statement. “This includes greater freedom of access for independent journalists but also ultimately an international independent fact-finding mission to the region.”
These camps have turned into a cheap source of labor for Chinese authorities and companies. In fact, this is not the first report that tied multinational brands to forced labor in China. Last year, an investigation by the Associated Press found that United States sportswear could be traced to internment camps. Badger Sportswear, a North Carolina-based company that produces popular university-branded clothing, was implicated; to its credit, Badger immediately ceased sourcing from suspect Chinese sources. Then, last month, Cotton On and Target were found to have some of their apparel products linked to forced labor.
“The presence of forced labor, particularly prison labor, at many steps of the cotton supply chain means that potentially all cotton/textile/apparel products from Xinjiang are produced with forced labor, and some of these products have entered into international commerce, including the U.S. and European markets,” said Citizen Power Initiatives' researchers in a press statement.
This likely extends beyond the garment industry. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, based in Washington, D.C., says it has found evidence that Volkswagen, Ford, General Motors, Heinz, Campbell Soup, Oracle and Thermo Fisher all have supply chains that link to Xinjiang. As a result, these companies are at high risk of either using forced labor, or they are empowering the state-sanctioned abuse of ethnic Uyghurs.
There is a strong likelihood that if your company sources apparel, cotton, or other materials from Xinjiang, China, it might be tainted by forced labor. Companies need to more proactive as they evaluate their ties to the region, and therefore should develop plans to source products from elsewhere. Considering that the state is likely behind these massive atrocities, the cost of doing business with China may be too large for any company determined to conduct business ethically and responsibly.
Image credit: Pixabay
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.