Forced Labour: The Uyghur people

Written by The Sustainable Buyer

It’s likely that as you read this, you are wearing cotton. If not pure cotton, is it a cotton blend or, denim? Do you know where the cotton in your wardrobe was grown? It’s unlikely as often brands themselves have no idea either. 

China is the world’s biggest cotton producer, and 84% of its cotton comes from Xinjiang province or the Uygher region. It’s estimated that one fifth of all cotton garments have cotton from the Xinjiang region. Xinjiang is home to 11 million Uygher people, who are a Muslim Turkic ethnicity and are a minority group in China. The Uygher people, along with other Turkic and Muslim people, have been forced into detention and labour camps. Human rights organisations have found that between 1 and 1.8 million Uygher people are being forced to work for little or no pay, with many of those inside the cotton and garment supply chains. 

The Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) recently stopped accrediting cotton producers in the region, stating “the operating environment prevents credible assurance and licensing from being executed”. They are referring to the systematic human rights abuse taking place in Xinjiang. Not only are the Uygher people enduring forced labour but there are also reports of torture, forced separation and compulsory sterilisation of Uhygher women. Most would agree that these action constitute serious human rights violations. The BCI are not able to accredit cotton growers or spinners as people under forced labour would face dangerous consequences if they told the truth about their situation. One human rights group quotes a Kazakh woman: “The clothes factory was no different from the [internment] camp. There were police, cameras, you couldn’t go anywhere”. Consequently, it is impossible to source fabric or finished garments from Xinjiang whilst being 100% sure that no forced labour has occurred. 

Due to the complexity of the cotton industry it can be very difficult for brands to find out where their yarn has come from. Arguably, this isn’t an excuse for brands to take the oblivious route, but they should be aware of their supply chains in their entirety. 

The difficulties in tracing start long after the cotton is picked and packed into a bale. It is then sent to a mill, where many bales from different sources (some ethical, some sustainable, some both, some neither). The cotton is spun, mixing the different cotton sources. Further to this, the spun cotton is then exported to factories for the garment to be finished and these are likely to be in other parts of China, Vietnam or Bangladesh (for example). 

Some brands have pledged to cease trading with the area. H&M for example will stop buying cotton from the Xinjang and PVH (Calvin Klein & Tommy Hilfiger) will cease trading with any factories in the region within the next 12 months. Adidas has asked it’s supplier to stop sourcing yarn from Xinjang. However some of these brands can also be found on a list here that been linked to forced labour from Xinjiang in their supply chains. 

Worryingly, there is evidence that over 80,000 Uyghers have been sent out of Xinjiang province between 2017-2019. Arguably, this is sufficient cause to boycott all Chinese produced fabric and garments. However, this would be financially catastrophic to many brands who see China both as a crucial marketplace and as an indispensable part of the supply chain. But on the other hand, it might be an effective political play to pressure China to close detention camps and forced labour factories. So far, the world’s outrage and various tariffs have resulted in China claiming to close the camps. However, on Tuesday 4th of August, 2020 the BBC published a leaked video from a detention centre. Without government intervention, the fashion industry has a ethical responsibility to cease profiting from the systematic genocide of the Uygher people.