Earlier this year Muji launched its Xinjiang cotton collection © Muji
Earlier this year Muji launched its Xinjiang cotton collection © Muji

Forced labour risk for firms sourcing garments from China

13 November 2019

Apparel linked to forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region is most likely being sold by Western retailers, a report has found. 

The report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found 84% of cotton produced in China comes from Xinjiang, a region at the centre of human rights concerns over the “re-education” and forced labour of Uyghur Muslims. 

China is one of the world’s largest cotton producers, representing 22% of the global market in 2018-19. Over 30% of the US’s apparel imports come from China. 

As a result, the report said apparel imported to the US would “most likely incorporate products from Xinjiang” and therefore could be affected by forced labour. 

Referring to government documents and interviews with ex-detainees, CSIS alleged detainees are being forced to work in Xinjiang’s factories as part of the government’s efforts to “eradicate minority religion and culture”.

“The government’s determination to move both ex-detainees and hundreds of thousands of poor minorities out of their traditional roles and into manufacturing positions is leading to forced labour, seemingly at a significant scale,” the report said. 

However, the CSIS said identifying forced labour in Xinjiang is challenging as traditional tools such as labour audits are not effective in this context, while NGOs and journalists are unable to conduct research due to government controls. 

It urged companies sourcing apparel from China to re-examine their existing suppliers to better understand their relationship to re-education efforts and forced labour and to ensure cotton supply chains are traced to their origin.

In October 2019, the US added 28 Chinese organisations, including prominent technology companies, to its trade blacklist over allegations of human rights violations, according to Verisk Maplecroft. 

In the same month, Nury Turkel, chairman of the Uyghur Human Rights Project told US Congress it is “becoming increasingly hard to ignore” that goods manufactured in the Xinjiang region “have a high likelihood of being produced with forced labour”. 

Last week, Japanese clothing brand Muji said it had launched a review into forced labour concerns in its own supply chain. 

In May 2019, Muji unveiled a collection of products including shirts made with cotton sourced from Xinjiang. 

Ryohin Keikaku, Muji's parent company, told ABC News some of its products used “yarn spun from cotton cultivated in Xinjiang, one of the world's finest cotton-producing areas”.

Spokesperson Aya Nishimura declined to provide a list of Muji’s suppliers but added the company's manufacturers must abide by its code of conduct, including the prohibition of forced labour and that “performance is confirmed by a third-party organisation”.

“If any non-compliance is found at the factories of the manufacturing contractor, it must immediately be pointed out and corrected,” Nishimura said.

“Ryohin Keikaku Group will continue providing customers with products that are of better quality and value, while improving the efficiency of approach in terms of the prevention of human rights violations and modern slavery throughout all its business areas including the value chain.

“We will announce the results of the review when necessary.”

Earlier this year, US sportswear brand Badger Sports dropped a Chinese supplier following an investigation into claims of forced labour in Xinjiang.

Garments made by the supplier, Hetian Taida, were blocked from entering the country by US Customs and Border Protection in October 2019.

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