According to a new report at least a hundred international brands are at the risk of selling cotton products that are connected to Uyghur forced labour from the Xinjiang region of China. This is because the Chinese industry obscures the source from where the cotton is obtained from. This seems to be a malicious and deliberate attempt by the Chinese producers after there were calls for mass boycott of Xinjiang cotton. The report, Laundering Cotton, How Xinjiang Cotton Obscured in International Supply Chains, was published by the Helena Kennedy Center for International Justice.
The report was published in November. The report found that 5 major Chinese fabric and yarn suppliers are using cotton from the Uyghur dominated region. They deliberately export semi-finished goods to international intermediary manufacturers that then ship the finished cotton products to international brands all over the world, including the USA. This is how the researchers were able to map likely supply chains that connect Xinjiang cotton to more than a hundred global brands.
According to Laura Murphy, the main author of the report who is also a professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University in England, almost Eight-five percent of Chinese cotton is produced in Xinjiang where local authorities are imposing coercive labour on Uyghur people. The local authorities force people- sometimes whole villages – to give up the rights to their land. After this is done, they are treated as labour surplus by the communist government. This makes them further vulnerable to state sponsored labour transfers and exploitation.
In the last 4 years, China has been accused by many human rights organisations and countries of detaining, exploiting, and torturing more than a million Uyghurs and some Turkish ethnic minorities in illegal internment camps. They have also forced a lot of them into forced labour. The report states that many of the facilities where cotton is processed are actually located very close to these prisons or camps. Though China maintains that these are not internment camps but “vocational training centers” where Uyghurs are taught new skills, the reality is quite different. Under the guise of this vocational program that is supposed to be aimed at poverty alleviation, China is carrying out a mass genocide of the Uyghurs. China’s assertions that the country does not subject Uyghurs to forced labour is blatantly false.
Just this year, USA banned the import of all cotton products that originate from Xinjiang region of China, citing the reason to be the exploitation of Uyghur labour at the hands of the CCP. This also included other products that involved forced Uyghur labour such as tomatoes. China has tried to pass off the allegations as the “biggest lie of the century” concocted by the West to contain China’s development. It has also accused the US of creating “lies” in order to “violate international trade rules and principles of market economy”. As we have seen, Chinese propaganda is not very effective in peddling these lies, as there is a lot of evidence of such activities.
China has also tried to defend itself by saying that these are its internal matters and that no other country has the right or privilege to intervene. Using international customs and trade data from the last few years, the researchers found that 52% of China’s exported cotton, yarn, and fabric is shipped to 53 intermediary manufacturers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Mexico, while finished cotton-based apparel is supplied to 103 well-known global brands.
Hence, its possible that many global brands are unwittingly purchasing goods that were made by Uyghur forced labour. The firms need to work on tracing the origins of these raw materials in their supply chains to ensure they aren’t supporting an economy of forced labour. Complex supply chains can obscure the source of raw materials. In fact, suppliers may hide their sourcing or combine different sources of cotton. Thankfully, some firms are actively investigating every one of their suppliers and sub-suppliers to ensure that no Xinjiang cotton makes it into their products. Other companies would prefer simply not to know, though that’s getting more difficult with international pressure, new research, and import legislation. Ignorance of origin of a product cannot be claimed as a valid excuse. If a supplier cannot tell a brand where they’re sourcing from and provide convincing evidence of that sourcing, the brand should end the relationship with that supplier.