Are you sure that your Christmas jumper wasn't made with forced labour?

(Unsplash/Brook Cagle)

The festive season is often associated with clothing: from something sparkly for the office parties to the office jumpers at school competitions or around the Christmas table. While this year will be quite different to what we're used to, clothing may still be purchased from some of our favourite brands as gifts for ourselves and loved ones.

But while these garments can bring some much-needed festive cheer, especially at the end of a year like no other, human rights organisations like CSW are concerned that some may be made with forced labour at some point in the supply chain from field to store. In particular, we are concerned that clothes we buy in the UK may be linked to one of the most egregious human rights violations in the world, the mass arbitrary detention and forced labour of religious and ethnic minorities in China's Uyghur region.

The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region estimates that 20% of the world's cotton comes from China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR, referred to by many Uyghurs as East Turkestan). They also believe that one in five cotton garments in the global apparel market are tainted by forced labour.

With these facts and figures, it's difficult to see how many of us could have possibly avoided playing a part, albeit unknowingly, in this horrific industry. Despite this, there are still actions we as consumers can take to put pressure on China and bring an end to the plight of the Uyghurs.

Who are the Uyghurs?

The Uyghurs are one of several predominantly Muslim ethnic groups who primarily reside in the Uyghur region in northwest China. Over the past few years, a large and growing body of evidence has emerged of widespread and egregious violations against these groups.

Most damning of all is the evidence which suggests that between one and three million members of these ethnic groups have been detained without charge in so-called political re-education camps since 2017. The China Communist Party (CCP) previously denied that the detentions were taking place, but they have since claimed that the camps offer vocational training and deradicalization programmes aimed at combatting terrorism.

The CCP's claims couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, the detentions represent part of what's been described by the Uyghur Human Rights Project's Zubayra Shamseden as "a wholesale attack on Uyghur religion, culture and ethnic identity."

Evidence to support the ongoing detentions includes testimonies from witnesses and victim family members, academic research, satellite images and leaked government documents. In one particularly incriminating leak, in The New York Times in November 2019 published some 400 pages of CCP documents on the vast crackdown, summarised in the words of China's own leader, Xi Jinping as showing "absolutely no mercy."

In many cases detainees are "released" only to be sent to work in factories across the region and the rest of the country. One woman to experience such treatment was Gulzira Auelkhan, an ethnic Kazakh who was subjected to both arbitrary detention in a re-education camp and forced labour in a factory. She told the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region: "The clothes factory was no different from the [re-education] camp. There were police, cameras, you couldn't go anywhere."

Additionally, in a report based on satellite imaging and published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in September 2020, the ASPI found that many of the camps "are often directly connected to large factory facilities" or "have large factory warehouses within them."

Who is complicit?

Dozens of major brands have been linked to specific cases of Uyghur forced labour. Last month, many were called to testify before the UK Parliament's Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee for an inquiry "exploring the extent to which businesses in the UK are exploiting the forced labour of Uyghur in the Xinjiang region of China."

One company who submitted evidence to the inquiry was Inditex, the parent company of several well-known clothing brands, including Zara. Inditex claims to have a zero tolerance policy towards forced labour of any kind, however researchers at the Worker Rights Consortium claim to have identified ties between Inditex and two leading Chinese manufacturers that are known to be complicit in Uyghur forced labour.

The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region has specifically called on companies to sign a 'brand commitment' which will see them end all sourcing from the Uyghur Region, from cotton to finished garments, within twelve months of signing. Thus far, Inditex, and by extension Zara, have not signed the commitment even though they should really have no problem doing so, in line with their stated "zero tolerance" policy.

Take a stand

This week, CSW is participating in a week of action aimed specifically at getting Zara to sign the brand commitment and pledge to cut all ties with the region and companies that are benefiting from the ongoing human rights crisis.

It's clear that the international community as a whole must make a stand to prevent these continuing atrocities in the Uyghur Region. States must put pressure on China to bring an end to the detentions and forced labour, including by calling for an independent international intervention into the region.

As consumers, we too have a part to play. To companies who rely on our purchases, our voices matter, and what better way to take a stand than writing to Zara to ensure that none of their products are a result of Uyghur forced labour. You can do this here.

Ellis Heasley is CSW's Public Affairs Officer.