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17 Nov 2019

Catherine Putz, The Diplomat

Companies urged to uphold corporate responsibility when sourcing from Xinjiang and Uzbekistan, both with high risks of forced labour

“Cotton and Corporate Responsibility: Fighting Forced Labor in Xinjiang and Uzbekistan”, 14 Nov 2019

… Various reports and testimonies indicate that Uyghurs and others released from camps are fed into the region’s factories… A number of factors distinguish the cases of Uzbekistan and Xinjiang — not the least of which is the sheer scale and motivation of forced labor in Xinjiang — but the underlying corporate responsibility to not contribute to human rights abuses is a thread worth following…

… Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) report noted that two Japanese retailers, Muji and Uniqlo, “raised eyebrows for spruiking ‘Xinjiang Cotton’ products.”

Muji, for example, launched a “Xinjiang Cotton Collection” on May 17 (as the ABC pointed out, the day after the WSJ report came out). Uniqlo, meanwhile, noted in a since-removed advertisement for a button-down that the product was “Made from Xinjiang Cotton, famous for its superb quality.”

Both companies responded to the ABC’s questions: Muji pointed to internal standards, including prohibitions on forced labor, and a planned internal investigation; Uniqlo stated that it “does not have any production partners located in the Xinjiang area.” Even while both companies mentioned Xinjiang in advertisements, there’s a motivation on the corporate level to distance the companies from allegations of forced labor.

… In Xinjiang, where raw cotton is also processed into yarn and cloth, as well as finished goods, the risk of forced labor exists at multiple steps in the creation of a product.

In Central Asia, Uzbekistan has been at the heart of a global campaign to stamp out the use of forced labor in its cotton sector. Under the Cotton Campaign’s Uzbek Cotton Pledge, more than 300 signatory companies have committed to “not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child and adult labor in its cotton sector.”

… the Cotton Campaign commented in a press release that the group’s engagement with the government has deepened positively… Uzbekistan pushed for the lifting of the pledge and the boycott of Uzbek cotton, citing progress in eradicating forced child labor and increased government activity to prevent and punish forced adult labor.

… the market pressure generated by the pledge has had considerable impact.

Among the companies cited by the May WSJ report as having supply chains that run through Xinjiang, there are several that have signed on to the Uzbek Cotton Pledge including Adidas, H & M, Gap Inc., and Uniqlo. While the pledge is narrowly targeted at Uzbek cotton, the concept of corporate responsibility that underlines the pledge’s commitments could arguably be extended to China and Xinjiang.

There are considerable differences however, between cases of forced labor in Uzbekistan and Xinjiang…

In response to questions from The Diplomat, Lehr, director of CSIS’s Human Rights Initiative, said that “forced labor in Xinjiang is part of a much wider system of repression and abuse against religious minorities that may rise to the level of crimes against humanity.” Furthermore, “government organized forced labor in Xinjiang occurs not only in cotton production, but in factories, so it affects more parts of the supply chain.”…

“There’s great value in the idea of companies committing to not knowingly source cotton from Xinjiang, and it would be consistent with their commitments to human rights,” Lehr told The Diplomat. “On a practical level, China is more challenging than the Uzbek case because China produces so much of the world’s yarn and apparel. Whether such a move would affect China’s policy in Xinjiang remains to be seen, and would need to be combined with other diplomatic and economic pressure, but it would certainly put companies on the right side of history.”

Part of the following timelines

China: Ethnic minorities detained in internment camps reportedly subject to forced labour in factories supplying to major apparel brands; Incl. co responses

China: 83 major brands implicated in report on forced labour of ethnic minorities from Xinjiang assigned to factories across provinces; Includes company responses

China: 83 major brands implicated in report on forced labour of ethnic minorities from Xinjiang assigned to factories across provinces; Includes company responses

China: Mounting concerns over forced labour in Xinjiang