The BBC recently found evidence of China forcing hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims into manual labor in vast cotton fields in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang. China has repeatedly denied these reports, claiming that Uyghur Muslims are there at their own free will, insisting that the camps are “vocational training schools” and factories in Xinjiang are part of a voluntary “poverty alleviation” scheme. The BBC report provides a clear picture of the scale of forced labor in the region, revealing how Uyghur Muslims are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by the Chinese government. They’re also been subject to mental and psychological torture, are made to learn Mandarin Chinese, and are expected to criticize or renounce their faith.
While China’s treatment of the minority Muslim community is inhumane, we can’t afford to stay back and point fingers at China without recognizing how the world’s governments, industries, and businesses are complicit. The fashion industry is one of those players. Global fashion companies use raw cotton picked by Uyghur Muslims in their garments, and are complicit in the exploitation and forced labor of Uyghurs. The fashion industry is turning a blind eye to a human rights crisis that is happening in the world today to favor profit over people.
The BBC uncovered documents that revealed the full extent of forced labor in the region. Upwards of half a million minority workers a year are being marshaled into seasonal cotton-picking under coercive conditions. The picking of a cotton crop accounts for a fifth of the world’s cotton supply, and are used widely throughout the global fashion industry.
Dr. Adrian Zenz, from the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation who uncovered the documents, told the BBC, “For the first time we not only have evidence of Uyghur forced labor in manufacturing, in garment making, it’s directly about the picking of cotton, and I think that is such a game-changer. Anyone who cares about ethical sourcing has to look at Xinjiang, which is 85% of China’s cotton and 20% of the world’s cotton, and say, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’”
The Better Cotton Initiative, an independent industry body that promotes ethical and sustainable standards, recently stopped auditing and certifying farms in Xinjiang over concerns on China’s so-called “poverty alleviation” scheme. Director of standards and assurance, Damien Sanfilippo, told the BBC that the organization’s decision to walk away only further raises the risk for the global fashion industry. “To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t any organization that is active locally who can provide verification for that cotton.”
The pandemic has uncovered the fashion industry’s many failings. 2020 has shown how unethical labor is an inherent part of the fashion supply chain – cheap labor and low production costs are applied to generate huge profits for retailers. Fashion supply chain abuses persist across the globe – from the forced labor of Uyghur Muslims in China, garment workers in Myanmar, India, Indonesia, Lesotho, Haiti, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Cambodia, and Bangladesh going hungry because fashion companies canceled billions of dollars worth of clothing orders, to accusations of worker exploitation in garment factories in the UK.
Big-name brands such as Adidas, Lacoste, Nike, and Zara have been linked to Chinese factories that allegedly used forced labor earlier this year. These companies along with others claim they’re unaware of how their cotton is sourced. Their ignorance is part of the problem – they have willfully distanced themselves from the dark reality of what is transpiring in their supply chain. In recent years, some have pledged to increase the traceability of their materials, but have yet to succeed in establishing visibility and control throughout the chain.
Thulsi Narayanasamy, senior labor researcher at the Business Human Rights Resource Centre, comments that the fashion industry is structured in a way that allows brands to avoid responsibility for the workers in their own supply chain. The business model designed by fashion brands doesn’t strive to protect workers, it’s designed to pocket as much money as possible through worker exploitation and forced labor.
The fashion industry will only endeavor to make changes once governments take action with mandatory legislation. Raphaël Glucksmann, the vice-chair of the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament, has long been aware of reports of forced labor practices suffered by Uyghur Muslims. He said in an interview with Vogue Business that the only solution is to hold fashion companies legally responsible for any form of violation of human rights in their value chain, including violations made by their suppliers, subsidiaries, and subsidiary contractors.
“[Brands] will take all the progressive stances in the world as long as it does not impact their business model, but the problem is their business model,” Glucksmann says. “The only way to convince them is to show that if they don’t change [it], they might face justice.” Glucksmann is taking the first steps – he’s working on an EU legislative initiative that would make human rights and environmental due diligence mandatory for companies through their entire supply chain.
Consumer scrutiny can hold power too. Brands are nothing without their consumers buying more and more from them, and they can’t hide from consumers if they question their practices. We can hold brands accountable by asking them directly on social media or via email ‘Who Made My Clothes?’ Fashion Revolution created this campaign in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in 2013.
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Human rights abuses are happening right now in China and the world is watching. In September 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Disclosure Act of 2020 and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act with almost unanimous support. There’s hope that the incoming Biden Presidency will condemn human rights abuses in China and impose further sanctions. On the flip side, the global fashion industry needs to take action too. Whether they refuse to acknowledge the issue or not, they are fully complicit in the repression and forced labor of Uyghur Muslims and as consumers, we are too.
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