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New Tool Helps Find Forced Labor in Cotton Supply Chains

As brands and retailers feel mounting pressure to divest from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a major fiber producer in northwestern China, over human-rights abuses, a leading supply-chain transparency platform is offering a new way for businesses to identify forced labor risk in their supply chains.

California’s SupplyShift announced last week that it will host the YESS: Yarn Ethically & Sustainably Sourced Cotton Sourcing Risk Screen, a tool, built in collaboration with the nonprofit Responsible Sourcing Network (RSN), that uses supply-chain mapping to help identify the origin and certification status of cotton inputs.

The tool uses those identifiers to assign textile mills and spinners in its network with a “forced labor risk exposure” score, flagging those deemed high risk for priority participation in YESS online training and an onsite assessment based on Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development due-diligence guidance.

“YESS has become the leading standard for addressing forced labor in cotton sourcing, and we’re thrilled to be working together with RSN,” Jamie Barsimantov, co-founder and chief operating officer at SupplyShift, said in a statement. “SupplyShift’s platform will streamline the process of supplier engagement to help companies assign auditing resources in the most effective way possible.”

The YESS Cotton Sourcing Risk Screen will sit alongside other online, collaboratively built assessments in SupplyShift’s Standard Assessment library that allow companies to “gain insight across a variety of hot-button supply chain issues,” Barsimantov added.

“We’re excited to be working with SupplyShift on this tool that supports the YESS initiative,” said Patricia Jurewicz, founder and CEO of RSN. “SupplyShift is a powerful platform for mapping textile mills and yarn spinners, and we’re confident it will help provide insights for brands and retailers to better understand the risks in their cotton supply chains.”

The RSN is no stranger to forced labor in the cotton industry. A decade ago, the organization and the Cotton Campaign rallied more than 300 North American and European brands to sign a pledge boycotting—or at least committing to not “knowingly” source—cotton from Uzbekistan, where government officials coerced an estimated 2.6 million students, teachers, and healthcare workers to pick cotton every year. Today, the Central Asian nation has made strides in reducing forced labor from its cotton fields, including a roadmap by the current administration to eliminate the practice altogether.

The announcement comes as tensions in Xinjiang are hitting a critical point. A December study by the Center for Global Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, estimates that half a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are forced to pick cotton by hand through a state-sponsored “poverty alleviation” program. Xinjiang produces 85 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn accounts for roughly one-fifth of the world’s supply.

But Xinjiang and Uzbekistan are by no means unique. A March report by the Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights and Turkmen.news, both members of the Cotton Campaign, concluded that cotton bound for export from Turkmenistan, the ninth-largest producer of the world’s cotton, was once again harvested with forced labor in 2020. Students and public-sector employees, including teachers, were “systematically forced” into the cotton fields in four of Turkmenistan’s five regions from August to early December.

Though the Turkmen government has consistently denied the use of forced labor in the country during the cotton harvest, “cotton cultivation is fully controlled by the state and retains elements of the planned economy from Soviet times,” the report noted.

“It is past time for Turkmenistan to stop denying forced labor and punishing monitors, reporters, and others who speak the truth,” Ruslan Myatiev, editor of Turkmen.news, said in a statement. “Civil society has a critical role to play in promoting reforms that will benefit workers and the whole country.”

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