Uyghur Forced Labor and the Fashion Industry
The Chinese government is organizing and using forced labor to produce many of its exports, including garments, thread, and yarn used in popular fashion brands’ products.
Uyghurs, a Muslim minority ethnic group, along with members of other Muslim ethnic groups, are being interned in camps and then moved into forced labor.
This is especially significant given China’s central importance to the worldwide garment industry. Xinjiang, the western region at the center of the labor abuses, produces 80 percent of China’s cotton and 20 percent of the world’s cotton, and the US imports more than 30 percent of its apparel from China.
Other sectors of the garment industry also rely on Chinese exports, including the garment industries in Vietnam and Bangladesh, which rely on China for fabric and yarn.
Detainment and Indoctrination of Uyghur People
China has detained up to a million members of the Uyghur and other Muslim ethnic minority groups and placed up to hundreds of thousands of them into forced labor.
And it’s not confined only to labor. Indoctrination camps force Uyghurs and others to learn the Mandarin language and attempt to coerce them into adopting Chinese government ideology. Uyghurs and others are heavily monitored, housed in subpar conditions, prevented from leaving their jobs, isolated from friends and family, and paid very low wages.
Labor conditions are largely unregulated, and forced laborers are left completely at the mercy of their managers.
This is believed to be the largest scale detention of religious minorities since World War II.
Products and Scope of Uyghur Forced Labor
Products produced by Uyghur forced labor include, but are not limited to, gloves, hair products, textiles, thread/yarn, tomato products, and polysilicon, which is used in solar panels.
Much of this forced labor is occurring in the far western region of Xinjiang, from which many American companies source their products. Unfortunately, Uyghurs have been placed into forced labor in other parts of China as well, making many more supply chains suspect.
While Uyghur human rights abuses are coordinated by the Chinese government, private Chinese companies are complicit in Muslim minority exploitation. This is because the government is offering incentives to companies who use or train forced laborers. Many American companies are, in turn, profiting off of the cheap labor used to produce the goods they import.
China claims its efforts are aimed at controlling Islamic terrorism in the region and stimulating economic growth. The Chinese government sees the unique culture and religion of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups as a threat to Chinese unity and security. The United States and other human rights advocacy groups maintain that the detention of Uyghurs is without due cause.
China has limited international access to Xinjiang, making it difficult for watchdog groups to verify that forced labor is taking place, or to verify that supply chains are free of forced labor. For example, the Better Cotton Initiative has been unable to assess factories in the region.
However, many Uyghurs have themselves reported the conditions of their people to the outside world and organizations such as C4ADS (the Center for Advanced Defense Studies) have managed to find forced labor in supply chains.
Political Actions to Address Uyghur Forced Labor
To address the situation, Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) in 2021. The law went into effect on June 21, 2022 and presumes that all products manufactured in Xinjiang are produced by forced labor and banned from entering the United States.
Importers are expected to inspect their supply chains down to the raw materials level to ensure their products are not made either wholly or partly in Xinjiang or other facilities associated with forced labor.
Importers have complained that they may have to abandon suppliers in the region entirely because of the difficulty of monitoring their supply chains or finding third-party auditors in China. There are also concerns that companies will dump Xinjiang-produced goods into other international markets in response to the US ban.
China has responded in anger toward international discussion of Muslim minority forced labor and the United States ban, calling US reports on the forced labor “vicious lies.”
Brands Involved in Uyghur Forced Labor
In March 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute pinpointed 83 companies that used Uyghur and other Muslim minority forced labor in their supply chains.
After the report, some companies took action. But as of April 2021, many big name companies were still profiting off of forced labor. Popular American brands implicated include Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger, Kate Spade, Jansport, Vans, and Dickies. Many luxury brands, like Dior and Gucci, and international fast fashion brands, like ZARA, are also included in the list.
The UFLPA has put an end to many imports into the US from Xinjiang by these companies, but supply chains are still tainted as forced labor is being moved outside of Xinjiang to other parts of China. It is difficult to determine exactly which companies and products are linked to forced labor.
The Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region cites independent research identifying major companies still at risk of employing forced labor even after UFLPA has gone into effect, including Adidas, Amazon, Burberry, Costco, Hanes, Ikea, Kohl’s, Levi’s, Lululemon, Nike, and Walmart.
How to Take Action
Individuals interested in taking action can join the The Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region in calling on companies to comply completely with UFLPA and apply a single global standard in line with the US restrictions outlined in the law.
The Coalition is also calling on companies not to re-export goods stopped at the US border for suspected forced labor. You can also contact your representatives in Congress to express support for UFLPA and to call for further US action against Uyghur and other forced labor.
In all of this, it is important to place blame only where blame is due. Remember that the corrupt Chinese government and corporate actors are to blame for Uyghur abuses, not Chinese citizens or people of Chinese heritage. To name Uyghur forced labor and indoctrination as cultural genocide does not excuse rising anti-Asian hate and discrimination in the U.S.
We’re advocating for the safety, well-being, and liberation of all who are unjustly targeted, both here and abroad.