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Forced Labor Reports in China’s Xinjiang Province Roil Garment Industry

Mounting evidence of widespread forced labor in the garment supply chain as a result of the Chinese government’s efforts to “reeducate” Uyghurs (or Uighurs) and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang has prompted brands such as Cotton On and Target Australia to sever ties with cotton suppliers in the province, where more than 80 percent of China’s cotton is produced.

The moves, announced Wednesday, came after Australia’s ABC News reported in July that Uyghur Muslims were being rounded up and forced to work in textile factories in Xinjiang, which a United Nations committee described as resembling a “mass internment camp.”

The Chinese government has detained more than 1 million Muslim ethnic and religious minorities in what is believed to be the largest-scale detention of religious minorities since World War II, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

On Thursday, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank published a report that “connects the dots” between forced labor and forced assimilation in Xinjiang and Western supply chains. A “cheap and compliant” minority labor force, the report’s authors wrote, not only supports “government stability” efforts but it also promotes the government’s economic plans for Xinjiang.

“State documents indicate that the government is in the process of significantly increasing textile and apparel manufacturing in the region through a mix of company subsidies and underpaid workers,” the report noted. “Xinjiang will then be an export hub for the Belt and Road Initiative,” an ambitious global infrastructure-development scheme to deliver new trade routes to Asia and Europe.

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Earlier this month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection blocked the import of baby pajamas by Costco from Hetian Taida Apparel Co., a clothing manufacturer in Xinjiang, after the agency procured and reviewed information that indicated the products were produced using modern slavery. While Costco said it had “no reason to believe” that any of the baby sleepers in its inventory was inappropriately sourced, it decided to suspend sales of the items pending further investigation.

Badger Sport, which makes team uniforms and other athletic apparel, stopped contracting from Hetian Taida in January following an Associated Press report that the facility was employing forced labor from an interment camp.

But finished garments are far from the only products that could be tainted with modern slavery. China, as CSIS pointed out, is one of the world’s largest cotton producers, accounting for 22 percent of the global market in 2018-19.

“Much much of the cotton [is] at least partially processed within China,” the report’s authors wrote. “Some of the cotton is transformed into yarn and textiles inside Xinjiang, while much is sent on for processing in other regions of China, with a smaller percentage going to neighboring countries and then shipped to the United States.”

Because more than 30 percent of U.S. apparel imports originate from China, any of those that include cotton “most likely incorporate products from Xinjiang and thus may be affected by forced labor.”

The American Apparel & Footwear Association, which represents hundreds of U.S. apparel and footwear businesses and their suppliers, said in a statement on Thursday that it was “deeply concerned” by reports on labor practices in Xinjiang, specifically citing CSIS’s report.

“It is a top priority of our industry to ensure that all workers in our supply chains—regardless of the country or region where we operate—work under safe, ethical, and humane conditions,” it said, adding that the industry has built a “mutually beneficial” relationship with China over the decades. China, it said, is not only the largest manufacturer of apparel in the world but also the fastest-growing market for clothing.

But the organization also “respectfully asks” that the Chinese government facilitate “all due diligence measures” in a bid to clarify facts and drive necessary actions to protect workers from forced labor.

“We have been working closely with our members to educate them with available information about labor practices in Xinjiang province, so they can conduct the necessary due diligence to assure that products are not made with, or use components that were touched by, forced labor,” it said. “Today’s CSIS report is an important contribution to that knowledge base.”