Businesses must sever links with Xinjiang, says ethical trade alliance
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Uighur human rights activists participate in a demonstration to protest against Chinese government's policy against the Uighur people

Businesses should take extra steps to ensure their supply chains are free from links with China’s Xinjiang region, an alliance of multinational employers, trade unions, and NGOs has warned, as human rights abuses perpetrated against the Uighur people continue to be documented.

The Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which counts Asos, Gap, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, and M&S among its corporate members, has updated its guidance on state-imposed forced labour in light of “appalling violations of the most basic human rights” committed against the Uighur population in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, northwest China.

Members of the Muslim minority community are used as a source of free labour in factories throughout China, as well as in the cotton fields of western Xinjiang where 85% of the country’s cotton is produced. The Xinjiang region accounts for 20% of the world’s total cotton production. These figures suggest one in five cotton garments in the global apparel market are tainted by forced labour.

The ETI, whose corporate members have a combined annual turnover of more than £120bn, said it was “deeply concerned” about reports documenting the abuse and exploitation of the Uighur community and, although noting many businesses have begun mapping their supply chains to mitigate the risks of forced labour, warned of the “significant challenges” to conducting human rights due diligence in China.

“Within Xinjiang, there are reported constraints on the ability of independent auditors to freely access the region. The wider context also means that affected workers are likely unable to speak freely,” said the alliance in a statement. “Therefore, audits conducted within Xinjiang cannot be relied upon and there must be a presumption of a high risk of forced labour in any workplace located within the region.”  

The ETI said all businesses should take “extra steps to ensure their supply chains are not linked in any way” with Xinjiang and endorsed the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uighur Region’s Call to Action roadmap for businesses. The coalition’s roadmap encourages companies to identify and “disengage” with any supplier and sub-supplier with links to Uighur labour, both inside and outside Xinjiang.

A 2020 report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified more than 80 foreign and Chinese companies as directly or indirectly benefiting from forced labour outside Xinjiang through labour transfer programmes that have moved approximately 80,000 Uighurs to factories around China.

Since the report’s publication, several western brands, including Adidas, Burberry, Uniqlo, and Lacoste, have moved to distance themselves from links with Xinjiang.

Nike stated it is “committed to ethical and responsible manufacturing” and, “concerned about reports of forced labour”, confirmed it does not source products from Xinjiang; a similar statement was made by Swedish retail giant H&M in September 2020.

These statements have been met with calls for Chinese consumers to boycott western products. Last month, a Chinese government spokesperson suggested H&M would “not make money” in China if it continued to refuse cotton from Xinjiang.

Beijing has also applied unprecedented sanctions against London-based Essex Court Chambers after four of its members produced a legal opinion stating that acts carried out by the Chinese government against the Uighurs “amount to crimes against humanity and the crime of genocide”.