Coalition brings pressure to end forced Uighur labor

A Uighur woman picking cotton in Xinjiang, China.

By Elizabeth Patron and Austin Ramzy

On Thursday, more than 190 organizations spanning 36 countries issued a call to action, seeking formal commitments from clothing brands to cut all ties with suppliers implicated in Uighur forced labor and to end all sourcing from the Xinjiang region of China in the next 12 months.

Roughly 1 in 5 cotton garments sold globally contain cotton or yarn from the Xinjiang region in northwestern China. There, authorities have used coercive labor programs and mass internment to remold as many as 1 million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other largely Muslim minorities into model workers obedient to the Communist Party. Camp inmates are forced to undergo job training, and some then take factory positions at little or no pay.

“Many brands have known for years about the growing body of evidence around Uighur exploitation,” said Peter Irwin, a spokesman for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group based in Washington. “They won’t stop unethical sourcing practices unless they are faced with real reputational risk and the possibility that consumers will stop shopping from their stores.”

Recent investigations by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Axios and others have found evidence that connects China’s forced detention of Turkic-speaking Uighurs to the supply chains of many of the world’s best-known fashion retailers, including Adidas, Lacoste, H&M, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ralph Lauren and PVH Corp., which owns labels including Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.

“Until now, there simply has not been enough pressure on big fashion industry names to completely cease ties with factories and suppliers in the Uighur region, an area on which many remain hugely dependent and where there is a huge amount of money on the line,” Irwin said.

On Wednesday, hours before the call to action was formally announced, a PVH spokeswoman confirmed that the company had agreed to cease all business relationships with factories and mills that produce garments or fabric in Xinjiang, or that supply cotton from the region, within the next 12 months, bringing it line with the new call to action.

“Per our policies, forced labor is considered a zero-tolerance issue, and any confirmed instances of forced labor by our suppliers may result in termination of the business relationship,” the spokeswoman said, adding that the company was in the process of reducing its manufacturing, textile and cotton footprint in China.

Signatories to the call to action include the AFL-CIO, Human Rights Watch and Anti-Slavery International. The unveiling of the coalition, calling itself End Uyghur Forced Labor, comes days after another Uighur rights campaign focused on the fashion industry, led by a European Parliament member, Raphaël Glucksmann, also made headlines. That campaign prompted Adidas and then Lacoste to “agree to cease all activity with suppliers and subcontractors” in Xinjiang after they were implicated in a report published in March by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

That report said that local officials are often given targets for the number of people they must provide for state-sponsored labor programs. In Xinjiang, the threat of arbitrary detention in the camps weighs heavily on minority residents, so farmers, traders and idle workers often have little room to resist. The organization also said it found evidence that, from 2017 to 2019, more than 80,000 Uighurs were sent outside Xinjiang to work in factories that produced goods for dozens of multinational companies. (A growing number of Uighurs have been moved from one part of Xinjiang to another, or even out of the region to more industrialized areas in the east, as part of a system of organized labor transfers.)

Many Western fashion businesses have remained quiet when it comes to the Chinese government’s stance on local issues, fearful of losing favor in one of the world’s most powerful and fastest growing consumer markets or access to a critical manufacturing hub in their supply chains.

Fashion supply chain transparency has become a hot topic in recent years, with a particular focus on “tier one” factories where the final assembly of garments takes place. But labor abuse and polluting practices are also rife in the raw production of materials and yarn, and are harder areas to audit for Western companies, including in China.

Outsourcing labor means a number of companies can be involved in the production of an item. Coerced labor could therefore happen at many points, including during the growing and picking of cotton, the production of thread and fabric, and the manufacturing of the finished item. According to some industry experts, even if more clothing retailers commit to the Xinjiang withdrawal pledge, many will struggle to track the degree to which the production of their goods may be tainted.

“Companies will need to drastically increase their ability to trace their supply chains to origin to understand the risk of Xinjiang-linked forced labor,” said Amy Lehr, director of the human rights initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has researched labor in Xinjiang. “Most cannot do this now.”

“The other challenge for brands is that, until there is more access to Xinjiang, they can’t carry out their normal due diligence on the ground to know whether there’s forced labor there or not,” Lehr added.