Big brands like Apple and Nike are being called out by a group of campaigners made up of civil society organisations and trade unions, to end their ties with suppliers who are alleged to be using “forced labour” from China’s Uyghur people in Xinjiang province.
The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region campaigns for multinational corporations to ensure that they are not supporting or benefiting from the pervasive and extensive forced labour of the Uyghur population and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples, perpetrated by the Chinese government.
The campaigners have united to end state-sponsored forced labour and other egregious human rights abuses against people from the Uyghur Region in China.
Nike and other brands said they are tracking the issue.
Nike said it was “conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of Uighur or other ethnic minorities”.
It said it does not source materials directly from Xinjiang, the region in western China that is home to much of the country’s Uyghur population and many of the factories said to use the labour.
Apple also said it had investigated the claims. “We have found no evidence of any forced labour on Apple production lines and we plan to continue monitoring,” the firm said.
Politicians and activists say companies need to do more if they do not want to be complicit in the Chinese government’s human rights abuses.
“Brands and retailers should have left long ago, but they haven’t and that is why this public call to action is important and necessary,” said Chloe Cranston of Anti-Slavery International, one of the more than 180 organisations involved in the pressure campaign.
Reports by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and the US Congress, among others, have found that thousands of Uyghurs have been transferred to work in factories across China, under conditions the ASPI report said “strongly suggest forced labour”. It linked those factories to more than 80 high-profile brands, including Nike, Apple and Gap.
China, which is believed to have detained more than one million Uighurs in internment camps in Xinjiang, has described its programmes – which reportedly include forced sterilisation – as job training and education.
Officials say they are responding to risks of extremism and have dismissed claims of concentration camps as “fake”.
Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said getting companies to shift business away from Xinjiang is critical to convincing the Chinese government to change its policies.
“Until now, there have been condemnations of what the Chinese government has been doing but there have not been any actions,” he told the BBC. “The Chinese government will not do anything unless there are some real impacts, so therefore targeting the companies means a lot.”
The call for action comes as the US has also ramped up economic pressure over the issue.
This month, it sanctioned Chinese officials overseeing the region and warned firms against doing business in Xinjiang.
American border officials also seized a shipment of 13 tonnes of hair products from the region worth an estimated US$800,000 (£628,000), while the Commerce Department blacklisted 11 more companies – suppliers said to work with firms such as Apple – a move that limits the ability of those firms to buy US products, citing abuses.
Lawmakers in the US Congress are considering legislation to explicitly ban imports from Xinjiang, while politicians in the US and in Europe have also threatened legislation that would force companies to monitor the issue more closely.
“Companies all over the world must reassess their operations and supply chains and find alternatives that do not exploit the labour and violate the human rights of the Uighur people,” said US congressman James McGovern, who leads a committee on China.
Mr. Kanat said he believes an international movement is growing, pointing to recent comments by UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who accused China of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses and said sanctions could not be ruled out.
“This is encouraging,” he said. “It is the first step.”
The activist campaign is focused on clothing brands because Xinjiang produces the majority of China’s cotton, which accounts for about 20% of the world’s supply.
Apparel companies said they were taking the issue seriously. (Source: BBC)