U.S. Lawmakers, Fair Labor Association Condemn Forced Labor of Uyghurs

Following widespread reports of forced labor by Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other parts of China, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers submitted a bill to restrict imports from Xinjiang. Austin Ramzy of The New York Times reports:

With Xinjiang producing much of China’s cotton and textiles, the legislation could affect companies as diverse as Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and Patagonia, which are named in the draft bill.

While the bill’s prospects are uncertain, industry groups are already under pressure to police their Xinjiang imports. This week several released a statement calling worker rights and the treatment of minorities in Xinjiang an issue of “unprecedented” complexity, and asking the U.S. government to help assess it. Companies risk backlash in China if they are seen by the Chinese authorities as being critical of Xinjiang policies that Beijing has vocally defended.

The bill is co-sponsored by six Democrats and five Republicans in the House, and one Republican and two Democratic senators. It follows studies and news reports over the past year that have documented how millions of inhabitants of Xinjiang, especially the largely Muslim Uighur and Kazakh minorities, have been recruited into programs that assign them to work in factories, cotton farms, textile mills and menial jobs in cities. [Source]

To coincide with the announcement of the bill, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China held hearings and issued a research report on “Global Supply Chains, Forced Labor, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.” From their introduction:

As this report details, forced labor exists both within the XUAR’s system of mass internment camps, and throughout the region, and is confirmed by the testimony of former camp detainees, satellite imagery, and recently leaked Chinese government documents. This report documents both products and companies reportedly tainted by forced labor. It also documents how forced labor in the XUAR contravenes U.S. and international law. The import of forced labor-made goods is in violation of U.S. law, namely, Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930. Additionally, Chinese government-sponsored forced labor in the XUAR constitutes forced labor under the International Labour Organization and is a form of human trafficking under the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

[…] Comments from the president of the China National Textile and Apparel Council in March 2018 suggested that textile manufacturers, in particular, were working with XUAR authorities to exploit ethnic minority labor. He noted that various localities in the XUAR planned to have 100,000 new workers ready to work in the industry in 2018, part of a new textile industry employment plan that included combining the development of the textile and apparel industry with the skills training of camp detainees. More recent reports found that authorities used tax exemptions and subsidies to encourage Chinese garment manufacturers to move production to the XUAR. Leaked Chinese government documents published online in November 2019 confirm that forced labor is part of the Chinese government’s targeted campaign of repression, mass internment, and indoctrination of ethnic minorities in the region. [Source]

The report also lists global companies that are suspected of “directly employing forced labor or sourcing from suppliers that are suspected of using forced labor,” including Adidas, Calvin Klein, Campbell Soup Company, Coca-Cola Company, Costco, H&M, Nike, Inc., Patagonia, Inc., Tommy Hilfiger, and more.

The Fair Labor Association, which sets voluntary labor standards for a coalition of businesses, civil society groups, and universities, earlier issued a statement that they are “deeply troubled by credible reports of forced labor and other violations of fundamental human rights in the Xinjiang region of China. We call for an immediate end to these violations and pledge to work collaboratively with governments, civil society, unions, and multilateral organizations to achieve this goal.”

Inmates of the sprawling network of internment camps set up through Xinjiang to house Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in an effort to enforce cultural and religious assimilation and political indoctrination have been forced into manual labor upon their “graduation,” according to numerous reports. Many of them are sent to eastern regions of China far from their homes. A report earlier this month from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute looked into forced labor of Uyghurs at several factories that provide goods for export by global brands:

This report estimates that more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019, and some of them were sent directly from detention camps. The estimated figure is conservative and the actual figure is likely to be far higher. In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances. Numerous sources, including government documents, show that transferred workers are assigned minders and have limited freedom of movement. [Source]

See an interview with Vicky Xu, the lead writer on the ASPI report, from Australia’s ABC News’ Andrew Probyn.

Anna Fifield of the Washington Post wrote about the ASPI report in February:

The Taekwang factory is one of many where Uighurs are working “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labor” to make goods for more than 80 established global brands, according to a forthcoming report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra-based think tank.

“The Chinese government is now exporting the punitive culture and ethos of Xinjiang’s ‘reeducation camps’ to factories across China,” said Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, the study’s lead author. In some cases, they found evidence that Uighurs were transferred directly from internment camps to factories.

“For the Chinese state, the goal is to ‘sinicize’ the Uighurs; for local governments, private brokers and factories, they get a sum of money per head in these labor transfers,” Xu said.

Asked about Uighur workers in the factory, Nike said that “we respect human rights in our extended value chain, and always strive to conduct business ethically and responsibly.” [Source]

Not only clothing companies are accused of using forced labor. Dake Kang and Yanan Wang of AP reported last week on Uyghur workers at high-tech factories in Nanchang and how they are subject to more restrictive treatment than other workers:

When detainees “graduate” from the camps, documents show, many are sent to work in factories. A dozen Uighurs and Kazakhs told the AP they knew people who were sent by the state to work in factories in China’s east, known as inner China — some from the camps, some plucked from their families, some from vocational schools. Most were sent by force, although in a few cases it wasn’t clear if they consented.

Workers are often enrolled in classes where state-sponsored teachers give lessons in Mandarin, China’s dominant language, or politics and “ethnic unity.” Conditions in the jobs vary in terms of pay and restrictions.

At the OFILM factory, Uighurs are paid the same as other workers but otherwise treated differently, according to residents of the neighborhood. They are not allowed to leave or pray – unlike the Hui Muslim migrants also working there, who are considered less of a threat by the Chinese government.

“They don’t let them worship inside,” said a Hui Muslim woman who worked in the factory for several weeks alongside the Uighurs. “They don’t let them come out.”

“If you’re Uighur, you’re only allowed outside twice a month,” a small business owner who spoke with the workers confirmed. The AP is not disclosing the names of those interviewed near the factory out of concern for possible retribution. “The government chose them to come to OFILM, they didn’t choose it.” [Source]

Today, Nike announced it would review its supply chain in China in response to these reports, saying in a statement (as reported by Fifield for the Washington Post): “Nike had been ‘conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of people from’ Xinjiang…’Nike remains dedicated to ethical and responsible manufacturing and we are deeply committed to ensuring the people who make our product are respected and valued.'”

For more on the situation in Xinjiang, please see a SOAS Blog interview with Rachel Harris by Aki Elborzi.


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