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Fashion Isn’t Here for China Forced Labor—But What’s the Way Forward?

Five major apparel industry organizations sent out a rare joint statement Tuesday addressing allegations of forced labor affecting ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang province.

The U.S. Fashion Industry Association, American Apparel & Footwear Association, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association and Footwear Distributors & Retailer Association said the statement “recognizes the seriousness of the situation on the ground in Xinjiang and it reinforces the efforts that fashion brands and retailers have already undertaken to identify and stop forced labor in their supply chains.”

The organizations representing apparel and footwear retailers, importers and manufacturers called on the U.S. government and non-governmental organizations to work together with industry to reach a solution. The newly reported allegations indicate there is a long way to go, the groups said, and they want to be part of the solution.

“As an industry representing brands and retailers, we do not tolerate forced labor in our supply chains,” they said. “We work together to identify and eliminate forced labor, and conditions that can lead to forced labor, in the countries from which we source products. The industry continues to evolve and improve our existing approaches to identify, detect and address risks of forced labor in our supply chains. We actively engage countries all over the world to advance respect for human rights.”

The groups said they are deeply concerned by reports of forced labor and the treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minority workers in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and elsewhere in China, to which brands ranging from Nike to Zegna have been linked. The allegations outlined in the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) landmark report are “of a scale, scope and complexity that is unprecedented during the modern era of global supply chains.”

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The groups noted that the conditions in Xinjiang and the treatment of ethnic minority workers from the region, as acknowledged by the U.S. government and non-government experts, “present profound challenges to the integrity of the global supply chain, including issues of transparency, access and auditing.”

“Accepting the status quo is not an option,” they added.

AAFA, FDRA, USFIA, NRF and RILA jointly denounced the alleged use of forced labor targeting ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang province.
The plight of Uyghurs in China has sparked international attention. In a joint statement, AAFA, NRF, USFIA, FDRA and RILA denounced recent reports alleging extensive forced labor of Uyghurs and other minorities across China’s manufacturing supply chains. Shutterstock

Companies across the industry are considering all available approaches to address the situation, the groups said. Brands and retailers are drawing on expert guidance and assembling industry stakeholders, while the organizations said they are “framing these actions through the lens of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” and their own commitments to the fair treatment of workers in the industry’s supply chains.

“Our members have expressed strong concerns to their suppliers and reiterated that suppliers must maintain a supply chain that is free of involuntary and forced labor,” the statement said.

Published last week, the report from ASPI and the International Cyber Policy Center (ICPC) alleged that China’s government has facilitated mass transfers of Chinese Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities from camps in the western region of Xinjiang to factories throughout the country.

ASPI identified 27 factories across nine Chinese provinces that have been using Uyghurs for labor since 2017, and the group estimates that about 80,000 minorities were dispatched from Xinjiang between 2017-2019 under a government policy called Xinjiang Aid.

The five groups said Tuesday that while they are taking action, the industry cannot solve this alone.

“A successful solution for all, including the workers, will require state-to-state engagement and collaborative partnerships across government, industry, labor advocates, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders,” they said.

“Therefore, we urge the U.S. government to immediately engage a multi-stakeholder working group to develop and deploy a collective approach that accurately assesses the problem,” the groups added, “and find constructive solutions that target bad actors and protect the rights of workers and the integrity of global supply chains.”