Fast-fashion brands tainted by human rights abuses and forced labour: the exploitation of the Uighur population

Too many of the world’s most popular fashion brands are stained by allegations of forced labour and violations of workers’ human rights. Human rights organisations are increasingly focusing on the exploitation of workers throughout the fast-fashion supply chain, and in perhaps the most peril are the Uighur Muslims of China.

What is happening to the Chinese Uighur population?

Northern China’s Xinjiang province, often called East Turkistan, is home to the Muslim Uighur community. The entire population is being targeted by the Chinese government, which appears set on ethnic cleansing at worst or converting the entire area into a concentration camp at best.

Since 2017, the Chinese Communist Party and government authorities have confined up to 1.8 million Uighurs in “re-education” camps, in which they are subjected to both physical and mental abuse. The Uighurs, members of the Turkic ethnic group, are forced to take indoctrination courses organized by the party. They are humiliated and forced to memorize communist propaganda for hours every day in an attempt to eradicate what the government calls “terrorism and extremism.” However, the target is actually their religion and culture. Muslim detainees report they are forced to eat pork and drink alcohol, which is against Islamic practice.

The camps in which the Uighurs are detained operate outside the Chinese legal system, thus allowing the authorities to do as they please without repercussions. Many Uighurs who are prosecuted are not allowed legal advisors or trials.

Instead of denying the existence of these camps, the governor of Xinjiang, Shohrat Zakir, compares the detention centers to “boarding schools.” Yet at the same time, videos and photographs show the detainees chained up, unable to leave the camps.

Other abuses that have been documented are forced sterilisation or abortion, separation of families, and torture by electrocution. Not surprisingly, the Uighurs are prohibited from speaking out about the abuses. To do so would place them and their families at risk of brutal retribution.

How are fashion brands involved?

Videos have documented the Uighurs being shackled and blindfolded before being placed on trains for factories and forced to produce cotton for the garment industry. Around 20% of the world’s cotton is produced in China’s northern region. It is difficult to determine with any certainty all of the brands that are involved, but given the large volume of cotton that comes from the region, every global fashion brand must guard against indirectly profiting from Uighur labour. 

Multinational companies such as Zara, Nike, Gap and Adidas are among 83 brands that have been directly or indirectly linked to manufacturing factories that exploit Chinese Uighurs.

Multinational companies such as Zara, Nike, Gap and Adidas are among 83 brands that have been directly or indirectly linked to manufacturing factories that exploit Chinese Uighurs. Over 180 human rights groups are calling for an immediate halt to the abuse of the Uighurs in Xinjiang factories, where an estimated 80,000 are forced to work.

Many fashion brands deny awareness of the forced labour of Uighur Muslims. Whether direct or indirect—via subcontractors—any sourcing of cotton from this oppressed population is shameful. For how long must the Chinese Muslim population continue to suffer with the permission of fast-fashion brands? With every item of clothing produced, the fast-fashion industry is participating in a crime against humanity. These brands have the economic capacity to insist on a safe, legal working environment for all employees or to withdraw their business.

Are you wearing a face mask produced by Uighurs in Xinjiang?

Since the start of the pandemic, the demand for personal protective equipment such as face masks has been on the rise. Chinese companies are amongst many others across the globe that have scrambled to satisfy this demand.

Before the pandemic, there were only four companies that produced medical protective equipment. As of June, that number had sharply increased to 51, and at least 17 are linked to the forced labour of the Uighur population. Mask shipments have been traced to countries such as the United States and Australia, including from a Chinese factory in which over 100 Uighur workers had been transferred from Hubei province.

However, it is difficult for companies and consumers to determine whether their face masks are being produced by forced labour, due to the secrecy around the treatment of Uighurs. Chinese supply chains are deliberately private in their practices to avoid condemnation from the international community.

Call to action

The governments of headquarter countries for fast-fashion brands should regulate ethical production throughout the supply chain, or at the very least publicly distinguish between those companies that adhere to human rights principles.

Fast-fashion brands should research whether there is any connection with Uighur workers throughout their supply chain and report their findings publicly. If a connection is identified, they should stop purchasing cotton and sourcing clothing produced by Uighurs in forced-labour camps and use all methods at their disposal to pressure their suppliers to do the same. If a supplier or subcontractor refuses to be transparent, business with them should be terminated.

Global fashion brands should commit to an environment of respect for human rights and remain constantly vigilant for signs of forced labour and other abuses in their own factories or those of subcontractors, as seen in China. Annual disclosures to shareholders and customers should be the norm.

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