The End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition, a group of more than 400 organizations from 40 countries, said Tuesday that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has refused to disclose the steps it has taken to identify and eliminate any material produced with forced labor from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which contributes 85 percent of China’s cotton supply.
“The IOC cannot be allowed to let so-called neutrality override morality when it comes to slave labor,” Zumretay Arkin, program and advocacy manager at the World Uyghur Congress, which represents exiled Uyghurs, said in a statement. “Olympic leaders must take responsibility for labor and human rights at a time when the reality of forced labor of the Uyghur people is now widely recognized and condemned around the world.”
Many of the organization’s concerns stem from remarks made by Anta Sports, the Chinese athletic-apparel Goliath that is the official supplier of IOC uniforms and other apparel for the Beijing Games. Anta said last March that it has always bought and used cotton produced in China, including from Xinjiang, and that it will continue to do so in the future.
Human-rights groups and governments such as the United States allege that up to 1.8 million, Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities are being detained in prison and labor camps in Xinjiang, where they’re forced to pick cotton or enlisted in low-skill manufacturing. Others have been deployed to other parts of China as part of “poverty alleviation through employment” schemes that leaked high-level documents say are meant to reduce the Uyghur population in the region. Beijing has denied these reports.
Campaigners say that Anta’s “blatant statement” should have been a red flag for the IOC, which has a policy against forced labor. Months-long attempts by the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition to engage with the IOC privately and seek assurances about its due-diligence measure have proven unfruitful, however. On Dec. 21, the IOC brushed aside the group’s proposed terms for “substantive, constructive, and mutually respectful two-way dialogue.”
“With one month to go before the start of the Beijing Winter Games, the icy indifference of the IOC to labor and human rights is absolutely chilling,” said Bennett Freeman, a member of the coalition’s steering committee, co-founder of the Cotton Campaign, and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. “Our patience and persistence were met with intransigence and arrogance. The global outrage that the Beijing Olympics will generate may yet disrupt the IOC enough to force its fundamental reform.”
The IOC said that it has recently conducted third-party social audits for its Anta-made uniforms and found “no issue” that relates to forced labor. Beijing 2022, the IOC has said, has developed its own set of sustainable sourcing policies. The IOC also works with its suppliers to “raise awareness,” carrying out targeted due diligence on a sample basis, a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.
Regarding discussions with the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition, the IOC said it offered the group a “constructive engagement,” which the latter declined. “We are disturbed to see that bilateral exchanges between the two organizations have been released by the EUFL,” the spokesperson said. “We consider this as a breach of trust, which indicates that the EUFL was not interested in a meaningful or constructive exchange.”
Peter Irwin, senior program officer for advocacy and communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a nonprofit, said he was troubled by the IOC’s willingness to take the Chinese government’s assurances at face value. The United States recently enshrined into law legislation that bans all imports from Xinjiang over concerns of forced labor. Others have declared the Chinese government’s actions as nothing short of genocide.
“Held up against stark evidence of mass incarceration, torture and crimes against humanity affecting 13 million Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims, the IOC’s willingness to trust Beijing to investigate its own forced labor is completely delusional,” he said. “The IOC’s refusal to address the atrocities perpetrated by its partner, the Chinese government, is ensuring the Beijing Winter Olympics will be historic for all the wrong reasons.”
Meanwhile, Anta has ridden the wave of Beijing’s anti-West sentiment to become the world’s fourth-largest sportswear company by market capitalization. While Adidas, Nike and Puma reported double-digit sales declines in their Chinese markets during the third quarter due to a mix of consumer boycotts and supply-chain disruptions, Anta’s revenue in the first half of 2022 soared by 56 percent year over year to 22.8 billion yuan ($3.6 billion). Anta has also received a branding boost from Klay Thompson, the Golden State Warriors basketball star and second half of the Steph Curry-led Splash Brothers with whom it has an endorsement deal. Its outsized role in the Beijing Games will only lift its profile. The brand did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
With Anta’s full-throated support for Xinjiang cotton, there’s no way to guarantee that merchandise for the Beijing Games isn’t tainted with the exploitation of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups, the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition said.
“As a sister of a victim of this genocide who is paying the price in some dark dungeon for my activism in the U.S., I am very disappointed that the IOC is treating Uyghurs’ lives as disposable,” said Rushan Abbas, executive director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, an advocacy group. “The IOC’s disrespect for directly affected rights-holders, in this case the Uyghur people, is clearly reflected in their unwillingness to engage in reasonable dialogue. We therefore can have no confidence—nor can athletes, sponsors, or virtual spectators have confidence—that any of the thousands of items of Olympic-branded merchandise are not stained with the blood and sweat of my people.”
Enes Kanter Freedom, the 6’10” Boston Celtics center and outspoken critic of Los Angeles Lakers LeBron James—a longtime endorser of Nike, which has repeatedly denied links to Xinjiang—took to Twitter Tuesday, using his platform in sports to continue to speak out against “authoritarian” regimes. “Staying silent only increases the appetite of authoritarian governments,” the new U.S. citizen tweeted. “We must take a stand and be on the right side of history.”
Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.