Over the last few years, casual readers of newspapers likely had vague awareness that China had imprisoned more than a million ethnic Uighur Muslims and other minorities in camps in the country’s far-west Xinjiang province. While the Chinese government claims that the prisoners are volunteers who receive job training, human rights organizations allege that the ethnic minorities endure mass incarceration in “re-education camps” designed to indoctrinate those ethnic minorities.
In the last six months, a barrage of new events and evidence clarified the situation with striking details. In June, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) published a detailed, 34-page report on a factory owned by the Hetian Taida Apparel Company that supplied university logo clothing to Badger Sportswear. The WRC found:
. . . the investigation Badger commissioned of Hetian Taida, in response to allegations of forced labor, was fatally compromised by the company’s rush to exonerate itself and its supplier; the company announced findings, supposedly based on worker interviews, before [emphasis added] interviewing any workers. [p. 2]
The U.S. State Department placed China on Tier Three (the lowest category) in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, dedicating considerable attention to Xinjiang. In early October, Time magazine reported that the U.S. Blocks Imports From 5 Countries Over Allegations of Forced Labor, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intervened on a Costco shipment from Hetian Taida. Days later, the WRC issued an Update on Forced Labor and Hetian Taida Apparel. Badger Sportswear only cut ties after CBP intervened on the shipment for Costco. The American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade group for brands and retailers, issued a disappointing and underwhelming statement in response to this report that they were “deeply concerned” and called on the Chinese government to act. Also, Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a critical report entitled Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang: Forced Labor, Forced Assimilation, and Western Supply Chains offering specific guidance for companies and investors. A rare event these days, a bipartisan letter came from members of both the U.S. House and Senate calling on the CBP to investigate and block goods coming from the Xinjiang province.
Last week, classified documents from the Chinese government were leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, providing policies and procedures inside the re-education camps. The camps reportedly have watch towers, double-locked doors, and video surveillance “to prevent escapes.” The Chinese government apparently uses the camps to train its artificial intelligence programs for use in mass surveillance. The documents demonstrate that forced labor is an integral part of the Chinese government’s strategy for ideological conversion through industrialization. This is the largest incarceration of people based on an ethnic or religious identity since 1945.
A Toxic Combination for Apparel Companies and Consumers
China is the source of about 40% of all clothing sold in the U.S. The Xinjiang province grows 80% of China’s cotton, and, increasingly, the cotton is ginned there. Companies are erecting new factories in Xinjiang for additional steps in the garment-making process. Further, fabric from China is exported to Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam—all significant sources of apparel sold in the U.S
Corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights within company-owned operations and through business relationships. This obligation is delineated in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear Sector. Every brand and retailer that sources from China is exposed to the risks for forced labor in their supply chains: the harvesting and ginning of cotton, the spinning of the yarn, and the business relationships with corporations collaborating with the Chinese government to build and staff these new factories. The issue is not “simply” a violation of a retailer’s code of conduct or a reputational risk; companies risk a violation of U.S. law concerning importation of garments made with forced labor.
As public scrutiny of these issues increases, it will become increasingly clear that companies’ due diligence mechanisms (audits and codes of conduct) are insufficient. We at SGI would argue that, even in the best of circumstances, audits and codes of conduct, while necessary, are insufficient to protect human rights. In the circumstance of the Xinjiang province, such efforts are rendered ineffective.
We urge companies to take this risk seriously. It is not enough to lay low and wait; companies must engage proactively. We also urge the U.S. government to take meaningful action against the Chinese government in this matter. Even our faith communities have a responsibility to act. Events in support of “religious freedom” ring hollow if it does not also include action to respect the religious freedom of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Finally, as consumers, we are called to solidarity with those who endure forced labor. NPR’s Scott Simon put it well: “What does it have to do with us? Look down at our shoes, our phones and our toys.”
To learn more:
- China’s Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang (Council on Foreign Relations)
- Did a Muslim Slave Make Your Chinese Shirt? (Wall Street Journal)
- Xinjiang cotton sparks concern over ‘forced labour’ claims, (BBC)
- THE XINJIANG PAPERS (New York Times)
- 5 Takeaways From the Leaked Files on China’s Mass Detention of Muslims, (New York Times)
- Uighurs and their supporters decry Chinese ‘concentration camps,’ ‘genocide’ after Xinjiang documents leaked.(Washington Post)