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Growing Pressure on Brands to Cut Supply Link Tainted with Uyghur Forced Labor

State-sanctioned camps, forced labor and cultural genocide are something no company should be involved with, directly or indirectly.

In western China, there is alarming, increasingly irrefutable evidence that mass-scale, state-sanctioned forced labor — particularly of Muslim Uyghurs — is being used in farms and factories throughout the region. Dozens of international brands have been implicated, including Nike, Gap, Amazon, The North Face, Apple and Fila, to name a few.

This is why, last month, a broad coalition of more than 180 labor rights groups, NGOs and advocates put out a clear call to all brands whose supply chains touch the Uyghur regions: Immediately cut off all suppliers; as, due the region’s inaccessibility, there is no way to know which ones are using forced labor, and which ones are not. This is unprecedented in its scope.

“We typically tell brands they need to stay and use that power to remedy the situation. ... In this case, that’s not possible,” Penelope Kyritsis, assistant director of research at the Workers Rights Consortium, told Sustainable Brands™. “We know that the repression is pervasive, extensive — even if we can’t get the full picture or go there.”

The situation in the Uyghur regions of China has become increasingly worrying. What started out as a digitally enhanced police state morphed into the largest system of concentration camps since World War II, housing perhaps as many as three million Uyghurs and other mostly Turkic Muslim minorities. Alongside this is ongoing cultural genocide; as Mosques, cemeteries, shrines, and historic Uyghur neighborhoods have all been destroyed.

Why is this happening? The history is complex. The Uyghurs are located thousands of miles from Beijing and have little in common ethnically with the Han majority, sharing more culturally with their brethren to the west — ethnic Kazakhs, Kygyz and Turkomen of Central Asia. It was unfortunate history that led to this region being incorporated into China after World War II, and the desire by Uyghurs to freely express their culture and religion has led to occasional violence against ruling authorities. This provided the cover for ruling Chinese authorities to embark on a campaign of repression to eliminate, once and for all, the idea of Uyghurs as a distinct ethnic group.

“The Uyghur camps are one of the largest in human history, with the number of incarcerated prisoners the largest since the second World War, clearly targeting an ethnic minority,” says Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, urgent appeal coordinator & campaigner with the Clean Clothes Campaign.

It was only in late 2019 that evidence began to emerge that these camps were also being used as labor forces for factories. In March of this year, a report published by the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (APSI), a think tank, put it all together. The report dug into government and corporate documents to find clear evidence that factories manufacturing products for Nike, adidas and Fila used “watchtowers, barbed wire fences, and police guard boxes” to host Uyghur prisoners. This is what led this coalition to come together.

“We hope the brands will respond to us in a timely manner, and respond positively, because this is the right thing to do,” Yeung says. Together, they’ve sent calls to action to every major global brand whose supply chains extend into western China. “We believe that the brands are not going to defend using suppliers who use forced labor. It’s time for them to commit to the pledge, and show that they are willing to address these atrocities.”

Brands also need to explain what went wrong. Several mentioned in APSI’s report, such as Nike, have strong commitments against forced labor in their supply chains. Yet, despite evidence of human rights suppression for years, they did not do enough to monitor or investigate their suppliers.

Only now, after APSI’s report, investigative features from news outlets such as The New York Times and a massive document leak investigated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (the same group that investigated the Paradise and Panama papers) are brands and companies finally looking into allegations. This is far too slow.

“This is partially a failure of the ways auditing works in China, and also how brands are not being proactive in employing meaningful due diligence practices,” Yeung said. “It is not impossible to know if there is forced labor in their supply chain ... if companies have the will to actively look for it.”

There has been some action. adidas and Lacoste pledged to stop sourcing yarn from the Uyghur regions — a strong step forward. Kyritsis and Yeung are both hopeful that the coming weeks will see more brands take similar, or even stronger, action.

Unfortunately, just cutting suppliers from the Uyghurs regions may not be enough, as there is increasing evidence that Uyghurs are being sent to work in factories in other parts of China. During the Covid-19 pandemic, which emerged in Wuhan, China, and forced the entire Chinese economy to shut down for several weeks, Uyghurs were even shipped in to replace other workers and keep factories running, including those making the face masks many are using around the world.

“Uyghurs forced labor is not confined to the Uyghur region,” Yeung said. “This makes things even more complicated; as it's really hard to trace where Uyghur forced labor goes, and how long they stay in one factory or plant.” It may require an even bigger response, where brands need to reconsider sourcing anything at all from China.

For Uyghurs trapped in camps, or in forced labor situations, brands cutting off their suppliers now would be little comfort. But anything that puts pressure on Chinese authorities to end their campaign of repression is welcome — even if it is late. State-sanctioned camps, forced labor and cultural genocide are something no company should be involved with, directly or indirectly.

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