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Uyghur slave labour likely produces the clothes we wear

A staggering 20% of the global cotton market is serviced from cotton fields in East Turkestan, or the Xinjiang province as referred to by the Chinese government.

According to the End Uyghur Forced Labour coalition of trade unions and civil organisations,

“Right now, there is near certainty that any brand sourcing apparel, textiles, yarn or cotton from the Uyghur Region is profiting from human rights violations, including forced labour, both in the Uyghur Region and more broadly throughout China.” [1]

Could we be wearing clothes that were produced by fellow Muslims who have been forced into hard labour? [2]

An opinion piece published in The Guardian by Jewher Ilham, an Uyghur author and human rights activist whose father is detained in one of the sprawling concentration camps in East Turkestan, highlights the unpalatable truth that consumers may well be tacitly complicit in the perpetuation of the persecution of the Uyghurs. [3]

Ilham argues in her article:

“In the era of conscious consumerism, it’s often the case that companies are quick to say the right thing, but slower to actually do the right thing. Yet for companies being asked to remove Uyghur forced labor from their supply chains, the opposite is true.”

“Many of the world’s largest brands are willing to rearrange their operations in order to source products from areas that are not known – as the Uyghur region in western China is – for atrocious human rights violations, but far fewer are willing to do so publicly. As it turns out, ‘easier said than done’ does not apply when facing the rebuke of the Chinese government.” [3]

A special report in December 2020 by the BBC’s China correspondent John Sudworth revealed the colossal scale of China’s cotton supply and the reportedly widespread use of Uyghur slave labour. [2] Dr Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation based in Washington, and a respected researcher on the Xinjiang autonomous region, said to the BBC:

“Anyone who cares about ethical sourcing has to look at Xinjiang, which is 85% of China’s cotton and 20% of the world’s cotton, and say, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’” [2]

However, the issue lies in complicity and in fear of reprisals for speaking up about the true situation in East Turkestan. Such is the dominance of China in the world cotton market – many large multinationals are effectively being gagged into submission for fear of losing out on business.

In her Guardian piece, Ilham calls out the high-end clothing retailer Hugo Boss, which only a few days ago announced it would continue purchasing Xinjiang cotton, only for the statement to be hastily deleted and blamed by management as being “unauthorized”.

As Ilham puts it:

“From a brand known for supplying uniforms to the Nazis during the second world war – also made with forced labor as part of a larger genocide – that seems like the absolute least Hugo Boss could do. But the brand’s oscillation reflects the complexity of the challenge facing companies trying to balance market access in China with basic respect for human rights.” [3] [4]

In stark comparison, the Swedish retailer H&M cut ties with a Xinjiang-based cotton mill in September 2020, only for Chinese official Xu Guixiang to rebuff the act by suggesting, “I don’t think a company should politicise its economic behaviour … Can H&M continue to make money in the Chinese market? Not anymore.” Xu Guixiang further suggested that H&M’s refusal to buy Xinjiang cotton was akin to “lifting a stone to drop it on one’s own feet.” [5] [6]

Sudworth fled to Taiwan on 31st March in anticipation of the Chinese Communist Party gearing up to aggressively hit back at critics. Sudworth recently had covered and won awards for his stories on the Uyghur oppression. [7]

Sudworth and his family became increasingly wary of the heavy-handed approach taken by China’s leaders, as he was often under surveillance whenever he was trying to film. The monitoring and harassment was to such an extreme that plainclothes police officers followed him and his family – including his wife Yvonne Murray, who reports on China for the Irish broadcaster RTÉ – to the airport before they left Beijing.

Unsurprisingly, however, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied it had any inkling that Sudworth had left the mainland, with spokesperson Hua Chunying saying in a statement:

“Only in recent days when we were faced with the task of renewing Sudworth’s press card did we learn that Sudworth left without saying goodbye. After he left the country, he didn’t by any means inform the relevant departments nor provide any reason why.” [7]

With China recently banning BBC World News in February after apparently being displeased with the broadcaster’s ongoing coverage of the Uyghur situation, it is clear that China is willing to do all it takes to rewrite reality in its ruthless approach towards silencing critics. [8]

It remains very difficult to know for certain whether the clothes we buy are sourced from Uyghur slave labour production lines. In order for consumers to have more surety when buying clothes (and jeans in particular) that are not produced by Uyghur slave labour, an adviser at the sustainable fashion sourcing website, Common Objective (CO), suggests it is worth noting:

“If you really want to be confident of the traceability of the cotton in your jeans, you have to look for Soil Association organic cotton or Fairtrade.” [9]

Souce: www.islam21c.com


[1] https://enduyghurforcedlabour.org/about/

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/nz0g306v8c/china-tainted-cotton

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/09/cotton-slave-labor-uyghur-region-china

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/15/business/hugo-boss-acknowledges-link-to-nazi-regime.html

[5] https://www.islam21c.com/news-views/hm-clothing-retailer-cuts-ties-with-chinese-supplier-amid-forced-labour-allegations/

[6] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-56568422

[7] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-56586655

[8] https://www.islam21c.com/news-views/broadcasting-chief-responds-after-china-bans-bbc-world-news/

[9] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-56535822

About Shaheer Choudhury

Shaheer is a regular news writer for Islam21c. Alongside this position, he also currently works as a casework coordinator at the UK-wide charity, HHUGS. He maintains a strong interest in politics and current affairs, and on the varying worldwide situations of Muslim communities. Prior to working for Islam21c, he developed a number of years' experience in the health and social care sector, and has previously volunteered at the Muslim Youth Helpline.

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