Manufacturing and logistics – China

How Uyghur forced labour is driving global cotton production

Michael Caster

Since 2017, upwards of 2 million members of ethnic and religious minorities, mostly Uyghurs and Kazakhs, have passed through mass internment camps across Xinjiang, where there is now clear evidence that the Chinese authorities are committing crimes against humanity. Enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and efforts to eradicate cultural identity are widespread and systematic. China claims the camps are ‘vocational training centres’. But, encircled by barbed wire, surveillance cameras and armed guards, they resemble penitentiaries more than anything else. 

International attention is increasingly focused on the atrocities taking place in Xinjiang. In March 2021, the European Union (EU) sanctioned four Chinese state officials and a state entity, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps Public Security Bureau, for their roles in human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The Chinese retaliated by imposing sanctions on a number of European and national parliamentarians as well as European Parliament bodies; this did not prevent the EU from renewing its sanctions in November 2021. 

China’s system of mass detention, where hundreds of thousands are forced to work for little or no pay, is also attracting more targeted action. On 23 December 2021, the United States enacted the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act to address the importing of goods from China made with Uyghur forced labour. It is the most comprehensive effort to date by a major trading partner to regulate supply chains and combat the pervasive spread of products that are made with Uyghur forced labour and flowing out of China.  

In February 2022, the International Labour Organization published a report expressing ‘deep concern’ over labour practices in Xinjiang, after examining evidence of forced labour submitted by the International Trade Union Confederation. But the problem of Uyghur forced labour exists both in Xinjiang, the Uyghur homeland, and across China, with one report estimating that more than 80,000 Uyghurs had been forcibly transferred to factories in other parts of the country from 2017 to 2019. 

The list of potentially tainted products from these factories spans industries and products from the Apple iPhone and other technologies produced by companies like Microsoft, Sony and Samsung, to automotive industry players like BMW and Volkswagen. At the end of 2021, despite concerns that it could whitewash gross human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tesla announced it was opening a showroom in Urumqi, the region’s capital.  

But one industry that perhaps stands out above the rest is cotton: by some estimates, one in five of all cotton garments in the global market is the product of forced labour in China. According to a widely cited 2020 report from the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, more than half a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang had been caught up in forced cotton production. These numbers, based on publicly available government documents and media reports, are most likely lower than the actual number as the region remains completely closed off to independent human rights research.  

Xinjiang is responsible for roughly 85 per cent of China’s cotton industry, a share projected by some sources to increase to 92 per cent in 2022 due to a decline in production elsewhere in the country. This is alarming, in that China has consistently been one of the world’s largest cotton exporters, accounting in 2020 for nearly 24 per cent of global exports. Even though its total global share of cotton appears set to decrease, this should not detract from the human rights concerns around a supply chain based on forced labour. Or, as Citizen Power Initiatives for China, an organization which has advocated for supply chain divestment, puts it, ‘because forced labour is used so ubiquitously throughout Xinjiang, it is very difficult to separate Xinjiang’s forced labour economy from its regular economy’.

One in five of all cotton garments in the global market is the product of forced labour in China.

Some retailers have slowly begun to divest from Xinjiang cotton, but often only following independent investigations and global pressure. For example, in late 2018, reporters identified clothing shipments from a Hetian Taida Apparel-owned factory operating inside an internment camp bound for the North Carolina-based Badger Sportswear, a major distributor of collegiate apparel. Following revelations of forced labour in their supply chain, many universities pulled Badger merchandise. In January 2019 Badger announced it had stopped sourcing from Hetian Taida. 

Another Xinjiang-based company, Litai Textiles, has been a direct supplier to Australia’s largest global retailer, Cotton On Group. Huafu Fashion is another Chinese firm tied to forced labour that sources cotton for international brands. Target, Jeanswest, Ikea, H&M and others have sourced cotton from Xinjiang. Following international attention, in 2019 Cotton On Group and others announced that they had stopped sourcing from Xinjiang due to human rights concerns over the supply chain. 

Still, even as the global divestment movement has gained momentum, so too has China pushed back with its own boycotts, derailing international efforts to combat Uyghur forced labour. In September 2020, H&M announced that it was ‘deeply concerned’ by reports of ‘forced labour’ and that it would stop sourcing from cotton suppliers in China. Its announcement went relatively unnoticed until March 2021, when social media posts from the Chinese Communist Youth League against the Swedish retailer went viral: within hours H&M products vanished from online retailers across China. Calls for greater domestic boycotting surged. For its part, H&M issued a formal statement saying it hoped to ‘do everything we can to manage the current challenges’, and that they were ‘dedicated to regaining the trust and confidence of our customers, colleagues and business partners in China’. The statement said nothing of the company’s concerns for the trust and confidence of the countless Uyghurs subjected to forced labour. 

Japanese retailer Muji in 2019 openly flaunted its line of ‘organic cotton delicately and wholly handpicked in Xinjiang’. Two years later, in 2021, to comply with US import restrictions, Muji noted that it would stop exporting Xinjiang cotton to the US but stopped short of wholesale divestment. At an April 2021 press conference, Muji’s brand owner Ryohin Keikaku told reporters that the company wants to open 50 new stores a year in China by 2024 in efforts to ‘seek more growth in this market’. For now, it seems Muji has sided with market access over committing to stand against forced labour in its cotton supply chain. 

Despite a growing movement away from Xinjiang cotton, the actions of companies like Muji show that the campaign against Uyghur forced labour is far from won. More recently, in February 2022, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) came under fire for failing to adequately assess and ensure the sourcing of Olympics uniforms met human rights standards. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘the IOC did not provide credible assurance that it isn’t sourcing products linked to forced labour and human rights abuses in the Uyghur region of China and elsewhere’. 

Confronting forced labour, and combating wider atrocities and crimes against Uyghurs in China, is complicated by the scale of China’s presence in global supply chains and the economic and political pressure China can apply to get its way. Addressing this will require a similar scale of commitment from governments, companies and consumers to promote a rights-based approach to working conditions and labour rights in the sector. Until then, we must all acknowledge, as one Uyghur rights defender, Jewher Ilham, has noted: ‘There’s a good chance your cotton T-shirt was made with Uyghur slave labour.’

Photo: Members of the Xinjiang Kuchejiang Zhimei Farmers Professional Cooperative drive a cotton picker back and forth in a cotton field, in Kuqa, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. October 15, 2021. Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc. /Alamy Stock Photo