“I’m not buying it, China”: The cost of fast fashion for religious and ethnic minorities in China’s Uyghur region

A new cotton jumper arrived in my post this week, with three words on the label that sent my mind spinning: ‘Made in China.’ Whereabouts in China? Was it made in the Uyghur region? Was this jumper a product of forced labour? A token of a part I had played – albeit unknowingly – in fuelling an industry which I knew to be entrenched in the plight of China’s religious and ethnic minorities?

Where does China’s cotton come from?

China is one of the world’s largest cotton producers and most of its cotton is produced in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Uyghur Region), referred to by many Uyghurs as ‘East Turkestan.’ Credible reports claim that the Uyghur Region produces 84% of China’s cotton output, and it is the main supplier and exporter of cotton, apparel, and textile products to Chinese factories, within China and internationally.[1] The Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour believes that 20% of the world’s cotton comes from the Uyghur Region.

Absolutely no mercy

The Uyghur Region is also home to the Chinese Community Party’s (CCP) so-called ‘re-education camps.’ The CCP claims that these ‘camps’ focus on the study of deradicalization, legal knowledge, and vocational and language skills – with the aim of combatting terrorism.

In reality, the camps are where between one and three million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups have been detained without charge since around 2017. Detainees are subject to beatings, sleep deprivation, forced medication and solitary confinement. Conditions in the camps are dangerously unsanitary and overcrowded.

While ethnicity appears to be the most significant factor linking the detentions, and not all detainees are Muslim, there is a significant religious element as well. Witnesses report that detainees inside the camps are required to renounce Islam and promise not to follow religion. Detainees have also been forced to eat pork or drink alcohol, against their religious beliefs.

There is a wealth of evidence that these detentions are taking place. This growing body includes testimonies from witnesses and victim family members, academic research, satellite images, and leaked government documents. In November 2019, the New York Times revealed that they had received over 400 pages of leaked CCP documents which provided further evidence of a vast and brutal crackdown, summarised in the words of China’s own leader, Xi Jinping, as showing “absolutely no mercy.”

From ‘re-education camps’ to factories

Many of those released from the ‘re-education camps’ are sent to work in clothing factories, in the region and across China, that supply Chinese and Western brands.

Gulzira Auelkhan, a Kazakh woman who was formerly detained in an internment camp and then subjected to forced labour in a factory said: “The clothes factory was no different from the [re-education] camp. There were police, cameras, you couldn’t go anywhere.” There are also credible reports that, in some cases, factories are in the same compounds as the camps.

The complicity and responsibility of retailers

Credible investigations and reports have linked dozens of apparel brands and retailers to specific cases of Uyghur forced labour – from Nike to Ikea, M&S to Zara. While such brands have been named, virtually the entire clothing industry is potentially tainted by the forced labour of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups because of how much cotton China sources from the Uyghur Region.

The onus is on each corporation to ensure that they are not implicated in the Chinese government’s abuse of these people and its resulting violations of domestic and international law.  Some of the brands named have since responded, promising to look into their supply chains and reiterating their commitments not to use forced labour, but many more need to follow suit.

A call to action

Over 180 organisations across the world – including Uyghur rights groups, civil society organisations and labour unions – are now calling on brands and retailers to take responsibility for their potential complicity, urging them to sign a ‘brand commitment’ drawn up by the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour. This commitment will make corporations accountable for cutting all ties with suppliers implicated in forced labour and ending all sourcing from the Uyghur Region, from cotton to finished garments, within twelve months of signing.  

Corporations withdrawing from the Uyghur Region sends a clear message to the Chinese government that continuing to violate human rights will be costly. The cost of fast fashion for ethnic and religious minorities is too high for retailers to turn a blind eye – and nor should we.

By Emily, CSW’s Campaigns Assistant

Click here to get involved in CSW’s ‘Sorry, China, I’m not buying it’ campaign.

Featured image: Badiucao

[1] L. Han, D. Wong, A. Dewell, A. Chen (2019): The Fabric Full of Lies: A report on forced and prison labour in Xinjiang, China and the nexus to global supply chains, Citizen Power Initiatives for China, Monograph Series Book 2, Citizen Press, p. 13.