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As the US bans cotton from Xinjiang company, read how China has been exploiting Uyghur slave labour to supply Western markets

Many famous brands like Apple, Fila, Zara, Nike, Adidas and Puma are reportedly dependent on Chinese suppliers where Uyghur slave labour is being used to produce goods. China denies the allegations, saying that its 'indoctrination camps' are there to thwart religious extremism and trade bans are against international laws.

The Trump administration had recently decided to ban cotton imports from one of the largest cotton producers in China, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). On Wednesday last week, the US Customs and Border Protection agency said that its “Withhold Release Order” would ban cotton and cotton products” from XPCC, which is a powerful Chinese quasi-military organization. It is believed that the company uses the detained Uighur Muslims as slave labour, reported Nikkei Asia.

The ban on XPCC will have a notable effect on its involvement in the global business of textiles and apparels. In 2015, the 66-year old company produced 30% of the total cotton produced in China. The Treasury Department has already banned all dollar transactions with XPCC in July this year.

China-made cheap cotton goods are a product of slave labour

Kenneth Cuccinelli, Security Secretary, Department of Homeland, has called “Made in China” a “warning label.” He said, “The cheap cotton goods you may be buying for family and friends during this season of giving, if coming from China, it may have been made by slave labour in some of the most egregious human rights violations existing today in the modern world.”

Brenda Smith, CBP’s executive assistant commissioner for trade, said that this ban would force apparel firms and other companies using XPCC-produced cotton to change their supplier, eliminating the company’s presence from many stages of the supply chain.

Reaction from China

Hua Chunying, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, said that the claim that Chinese firms use forced labour is false. She said, “All workers in Xinjiang choose their occupations based on their own volition and sign labour contracts with firms based on the principle of equality and free will.” She further added that the ban is in contradiction to the international trade rules, and it is going to hurt consumers everywhere.

Identifying XPCC cotton may be difficult, say traders

Reuters quoted a trader from China who said that ban on XPCC would pretty much block all Chinese textile imports. Identification of the supplier will increase the manufacturing cost. He said that only a few companies are capable of guaranteeing that they were not using XPCC cotton. “It really depends on how much proof they want. If they want real proof that this cotton has not been used, that’s going to be extremely difficult,” he added.

Reuters had quoted major clothing brands including Gap Inc., Patagonia Inc. and Zara owner Inditex said though they do not source from factories in Xinjiang, it is not possible to confirm if their supply chains are free of cotton from XPCC.

Earlier, the US apparel makers had criticized the proposal of a broader ban on cotton from Xinjiang, but they welcomed the XPCC-specific ban on Wednesday. The group that includes groups like the American Apparel and Footwear Association and the National Retail Federation issued a statement in which they said they were on the “front lines of efforts to ensure forced labour does not taint our supply chains or enter the United States.”

US companies lobbying against Uyghur labour bills

Jennifer Wexton, U.S. Democratic congresswoman, has called out Coca Cola, Nike and Apple for allegedly lobbying against Uyghur labour bills on December 2. She said these companies should prove they are not using forced labour in China. During an interview, Wexton said that there is evidence that China is building more camps to forcefully keep ethnic people of the Xinjiang region. She added that though these companies have not approached her, the “word is that they’re trying to water down some of the enforcement provisions while publicly proclaiming that they are very much against and condemning forced labour. They’re going behind the scenes and trying to change the law.”

Problems for Biden

President-elect Joe Biden may find it difficult to ease US-China tension after this ban imposed by the Trump administration. Biden has pledged to work with the United Stated allies to increase pressure on China to curb human rights and trade abuses. However, he also wanted to ease the tension between the two nations that have increased during the Trump administration due to action against major Chinese state companies. The Trump Administration has banned access to US technology and investments for many companies, including Huawei and others.

The ‘slave labour’ in China

In 2018, a United Nations human rights panel said in a statement that they have a credible report that China is holding over one million ethnic Uyghurs in China in what resembles a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.” Gay McDougall, a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, stated that in the western Xinjiang autonomous region, an estimated two million Uyghurs and Muslim minorities were forced into “political camps for indoctrination.”

China has said that it is facing a severe threat from Islamist militants and separatists. The Communist Party of China-led government has said that these militants and separatists stir up tension between the Muslim Uyghur minority who are native to the Xinjiang region and the ethnic Han Chinese majority.

At that time, the U.S. mission to UN said in a statement that they are deeply troubled by the reports of an ongoing crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslims in China and had called on China to end counterproductive policies and free all of those who have been arbitrarily detained.

‘Uyghurs for sale’ – Australian Strategic Policy Institute report

In Match 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) had released a report on the condition of Uyghur and other ethnic minority citizens from the far west region of Xinjiang. The report detailed out how ethnic people from the said region have been mass transferred across the country. The conditions they work in suggest forced labour. The report suggested that as many as 82 well-known global brands in sectors including technology, clothing and automotive sectors have such workers in their suppliers’ factories in China. These companies include major names such as Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen.

Uyghur transfers to other parts of China from 2017 to 2020 (Image: ASPI)

As per the report, there are more than 80,000 Uyghurs who were transferred to different parts of the country between 2017 and 2019. Some of them were sent directly from the detention camps. The number included in the report was conservative, and the actual numbers can be much higher. These workers not only work as forced labour but have to undergo compulsory organized Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours. They are constantly under surveillance and not allowed to take part in any religious observations.

The Nike Factory in China

Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co. Ltd employed over 600 ethnic workers from the Xinjiang region, comprising mainly Uyghur women from Hotan and Kashgar. These regions are located in the remote area of southern Xinjiang, which the Chinese government describes as a “backward region that is affected by religious extremism.” These workers work in the factory during the day time and then attend a night school where they study Mandarin, sing the Chinese national anthem and receive ‘vocational training’ and ‘patriotic education,’ the report suggested. This factory makes around 70 lakh shoes for Nike every year. A report in the Washington Post suggested that these workers are not allowed to go home on holidays.

Adidas’ connection with forced labour in China

The Haoyuanpeng Clothing Manufacturing Co. Ltd is a part of the program. On its website, it suggests that the company supplies products to Italian–South Korean fashion label Fila, German sportswear companies Adidas and Puma, and Nike. As many as 63 forced labourers were transferred to its factory in 2018. When Adidas was asked about its association with the company, a spokesperson said that they do not have a direct relationship with the company and they will investigate the issue further.

Apple one of the beneficiaries of ‘forced labour’ in China

O-Film Technology Co. Ltd, which manufactures selfie cameras for Apple’s iPhone 8 and iPhone X, has been allegedly using forced labour in China. In, 2017, around 700 Uyghurs were reportedly transferred from Lop county, Hotan Prefecture, in Xinjiang to work at O-Film’s factory in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, the ASPI report had stated.

In December 2017, Apple CEO Tim Cook had visited the Guangzhou factory of O-Film. At that time, Cook praised the company’s humane approach towards its employees. The press release has now been deleted from Apple’s website. O-Film’s other major customers include Acer, Samsung, Mi, Asus, HTC, Sony, H.P. and many others.

Labour transfer from Xinjiang and labour trade

In recent years, the transfer of ‘forced labour’ has increased from Xinjiang. As per the media reports, 20,859 ‘rural surplus labourers’ from Xinjiang were transferred to other Chinese regions in 2017. In 2018, the number increased to 28,000, and in 2019 approx 32,000 people were transferred out of Xinjiang.

In recent tims, ‘government-sponsored Uyghur labour’ ads started to appear online in China. A company based in Qingdao in 2019 published an ad in which it mentioned that a large number of government-led qualified, secure and reliable’ Uyghur workers were available for transfer to up to 10 provinces in China. In the ad, two cartoon figures wearing traditional Uyghur clothing were seen dancing.

Ad stating availability of Xinjiang workers dressed in traditional clothings (Image: ASPI)

Another advertisement read, “The advantages of Xinjiang workers are: semi-military style management, can withstand hardship, no loss of personnel … Minimum order 100 workers!’. The advertisement also said that factory managers can apply for current Xinjiang police to be stationed at their factory 24 hours a day, and that the workers could be delivered (along with an Uyghur cook) within 15 days of the signing of a one-year contract.” This particular ad suggested that the workers are young and efficient and can work for a long duration every day in the factories.

United Nation’s stand on the Xinjiang issue

On October 6, Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, Permanent Representative of the German Mission to the United Nations, said that 39 countries including United States, Germany,  Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Spain and others were gravely concerned about the human rights situation in Xinjiang. He said, “We call on China to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and her Office, and relevant special procedure mandate holders; to urgently implement CERD’s eight recommendations related to Xinjiang, including by refraining from the arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and members of other minorities. In view of our concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, we call on all countries to respect the principle of non-refoulment.”

In June 2020, 50 UN Special Procedures mandate holders issued an exceptional letter of concern, calling on the People’s Republic of China to respect human rights in the Xinjiang region. In October 2019, over two dozen countries called on China for its brutal policies against 13 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang as part of its “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Extremism.”

China’s denial of Human Rights abuse claims

So far, China has claimed that the news about mistreatment and human rights abuse in the Xinjiang region are false. However, reports have suggested that China is changing the demographic situation in the region. Several reports have suggested that China has demolished a number of mosques in the region. Interestingly, its Islamic ally Pakistan has been quiet over the issue, and PM Imran Khan has categorically denied knowledge of any such human rights abuse in the Xinjiang region. In October 2020, Pakistan’s National Security Analyst (NSA) Moeed Yusuf said that human rights abuse in the Xinjiang region is a non-issue.

 

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Anurag
B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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