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The world's biggest fashion brands are complicit in forced labour, say human rights groups

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Supply chains are complex entities, with far-reaching tentacles that often have little or no contact with the main body or businesses. If a fashion behemoth outsources production to a third party, and subsequently this party also outsources its production to another vendor/factory/partner, it become a murky chain where it is difficult to pinpoint connections to any directly accountable company or individual when unethical practices are brought to light.

This week, articles in the New York Times and Guardian say many of the world’s leading brands and retailers are complicit in the forced labour abuses taking place in the Xinjiang region of China where the Uighur people are based. To put that in perspective, China is the world’s largest cotton producer and approximately 84 percent of this cotton derives from Xinjiang.

One in five cotton products sold across the world is tainted with forced labour

According to a coalition of more than 180 human rights groups, the situation in Xinjiang is grave, where up to 1.8 million Uighur and other Muslim people are in prison camps, where human rights violations and forced labour in factories and farms are daily abuses. “Global fashion brands source so extensively from Xinjiang that the coalition estimates it is ‘virtually certain’ that as many as one in five cotton products sold across the world is tainted with forced labour and human rights violations occurring there,” wrote the Guardian.

Brands ranging from the Gap to C&A, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Adidas have been called out by the coalition for having links to the forced labour of the Uighur people, be it through sourcing or factories. “There is a high likelihood that every high street and luxury brand runs the risk of being linked to what is happening to the Uighur peope,” Chloe Cranson, business and human rights manager at Anti-Slavery International said to the Guardian.

Factories resemble prisons

China has detained about a million Uighurs at internment camps, where they are punished, indoctrinated and working under coercive conditions at factories, reported the BBC back in March. China dubbed the camps “vocational training centres.” The Washington Post visited one such factory, which produces shoes for Nike. “It said it resembled a prison, with barbed wire, watchtowers, cameras and a police station.”

Nike told the Washington Post it was “committed to upholding international labour standards globally” and that its suppliers were “strictly prohibited from using any type of prison, forced, bonded or indentured labor.”

The coalition, as written in the Guardian, says many leading brands have lucrative contracts and partnerships with Chinese companies, “accepting subsidies from their government to expand textile production in the region or benefiting from the forced labour of Uighur people transferred from Xinjiang to factories across China.”

Back in 2014 the Xinjiang region was getting a makeover, receiving heavy investment from the Chinese government, which at the time was home to 175 farms, making it the largest producer of cotton in the region. The increasing amount of support through government subsidies boosted Xinjiang’s cotton production, but also required millions of labourers to meet demand.

“Global brands need to ask themselves how comfortable they are contributing to a genocidal policy against the Uighur people. These companies have somehow managed to avoid scrutiny for complicity in that very policy – this stops today,” Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told the Guardian.

Photo credit: Pexels, Artem Bali

Ethical Fashion
Human rights