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More and more clothing linked to Uyghur forced labour: Here’s what you need to know

By Caitlyn Terra


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Cotton field in Xinjiang. Credits: Ecotextile.

An increasing number of fashion companies are being investigated for possible links to Uyghur forced labour. A new report by British university, Sheffield Hallam University, and partnered Uyghur advocacy groups has linked 39 fashion brands to forced labour from the Xinjiang region. Here, it is understood that a Muslim minority, the Uyghurs, have been put to work under pressure from the Chinese government.

First, the basics: Experts say there is evidence that in the Xinjiang region , the Muslim minority Uyghurs are being put into labour camps. Xinjiang is a region with many textile factories and one that produces a lot of cotton. Exactly how many people perform under forced labour is uncertain. Predictions range from half a million to several million. It is not only Uyghurs who are put to work in these camps and prisons, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and North Koreans are also sent here.

Because of the relation between Uyghur forced labour with cotton and textiles, the link with fashion companies also naturally emerges. For several years, reports have come out about bigger fashion brands working with products and cotton from the Xinjiang region. In recent years, for instance, companies such as Bestseller, H&M, Nike, Hugo Boss, C&A, State of Art, Patagonia, Shein, Ralph Lauren, Levi's and Diesel have already faced accusations and investigations. The chains then often say they have no evidence of wrongdoing, but cooperate fully with the investigations. So it's not just about low-price chains, luxury brands also face the allegations.

When reports come out about a possible link, brands sometimes specifically distance themselves from the region. In 2021, H&M and Nike both indicated that they would not use cotton from the Chinese province due to concerns about forced labour. In return for this decision, however, both brands faced boycotts from China. Several Chinese influencers called for boycotting the chains and videos even appeared online of products from the brands being burned.

Investigation into Uyghur forced labour intensifies

Not only European bodies but also, for example, the Canadian market watchdog are investigating possible links to forced labour. In America, there is already a ban on the import of cotton and other products from Xinjiang. In practice, banning products made under forced labour is often more difficult than hoped. This is partly due to the complex production chains that fashion companies have. Working with several suppliers and sub-suppliers, there are many different locations that need to be monitored for working conditions. Despite the US ban on importing products from Xinjiang, there is a 'loophole' here. According to research by Bloomberg, Shein can still import products that have an origin in Xinjiang because the brand sells the clothes at such low prices that shipments to customers are almost always below a value threshold of 800 dollars. At this value threshold, a reporting requirement to US Customs and Border Protection is triggered.

Investigators of the new UK report say it is difficult to conduct independent inspections of suppliers in Xinjiang because the Chinese government has such a tight grip on the region. In the process, suppliers would often change names and change company structures. The European Commission wants a new law to ensure that companies are obliged to investigate their production chain and cancel out abuses. The law specifically addresses human rights and environmental impact.

In addition, the European Commission has made a proposal to ban products made under forced labour from the EU market. This proposal covers all products, whether manufactured in the EU or imported. Where forced labour is found to be involved after an investigation, products will be withdrawn from the market and an import ban will apply. Researchers from Sheffield Hallam University indicate that regulation is very important and that the EU should introduce it.

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