China is one of the world’s largest cotton-producing countries, and more than 80% of its cotton comes from from Xinjiang, where millions of minority Muslims, mainly Uighurs, are living and working in detention camps for little or no pay. A July report said that “virtually the entire apparel industry” — from Gap to H&M to Adidas — was profiting from forced labor in the region.
The Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, a group of civil society organisations and trade unions across the world, is urging apparel makers and retailers to cut all ties with any suppliers linked to Xinjiang. Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, which is part of the coalition, said that if the Trump administration ordered a ban, it would “impose a real economic cost” on Beijing.
“If leading brands and retailers are prohibited from importing garments with content from Xinjiang into the most important consumer market for clothing — which is the US — then the implications for the Chinese government and its economic development strategy in Xinjiang are enormous,” he said.
The coalition calculates that one in five garments sold to consumers globally contains cotton from Xinjiang, meaning that “virtually every major brand and retailer is implicated.”
But tracking the cotton when it is transported abroad, where it could be weaved into other products, is difficult. After the cotton is grown in Xinjiang, it ends up in mills all over China, and is then exported to countries such Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam, to name a few. These countries export the finished garments to apparel makers in wealthy countries, like the US.
US government should impose new rules on clothes makers
Protesters march in support of China’s Uighurs and in solidarity with Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil after the furore caused by his criticism of China’s policies toward the Muslim minority in Istanbul, Turkey, December 20, 2019.
For the ban to be effective, it would have to target any product containing Xinjiang cotton, Nova said.
“The first step is transparency,” he said. A garment that comes into the US requires a custom form to indicate who made the garment and who shipped it — but not the origins of the cotton. The coalition wants the US government to start asking clothing companies where they source their cotton from. Otherwise, they will not disclose this information, Nova said.
Firms can find out if their cotton originates from Xinjiang, Nova said, adding that “brands can’t blame the Chinese government for their own lack of transparency of the origins of their cotton. That’s their problem.”
The Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region wrote a report in July listing 38 companies that it said continue to source cotton from Xinjiang. The human rights groups are in talks with these companies, and hope they all make the commitment to end and supply chains that stretch into Xinjiang. “But this remains to be seen,” according to Nova.
In the Xinjiang region, millions of Uighurs, Turkic, and other minority Muslims are herded into forced labor camps, which the state calls “reeducation camps.” Practices of torture, forced sterilization, separation from families, and killing newborn babies are just some of ways in which China is attempting to erase these populations.
Clothing businesses should be “deterred on moral grounds” from sourcing their cotton from these camps, Nova said. Whatever action is taken by the Trump administration, apparel makers should “read the writing on the wall,” he added.
Rahima Mahmut, the UK Project Director for the World Uighur Congress, is an Uighur who was born and raised in north East Turkestan. “My people are sieged in the hands of the Chinese government,” Mahmut said. “They cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The potential ban on cotton might drive the Chinese Communist Party to rethink their oppression of Uighurs, she said. Mahmut said that the West has “closed its eyes” to the atrocities — and that until China is punished financially, perhaps through targeted sanctions, nothing will change in Xinjiang.