More than half a million ethnic minority workers in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are forced to pick cotton by hand through a state-sponsored labor transfer and “poverty alleviation” scheme, new research claims.
Previous evidence for forced labor in the northwestern region, where the Chinese government holds some 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in internment camps and prisons, involved only low-skilled manufacturing, such as the production of textiles and apparel, according to the report, which was published Tuesday by the Center for Global Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
This report, on the other hand, “provides new evidence for coercion specifically related to cotton picking,” wrote Adrian Zenz, the study’s author. “These findings have much wider implications, affecting all supply chains that involve Xinjiang cotton as a raw material.”
The revelations, he added, have “potentially drastic consequences” for the global supply chain: Xinjiang produces 85 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn comprises roughly one-fifth of the world’s supply.
Evidence gathered by Zenz through government documents and state media reports showed that the Uyghur-majority prefectures of Aksu, Hotan and Kashgar marshaled at least 570,000 people to pick cotton in 2018. Labor transfer of ethnic minorities from other districts, along with prison labor, is likely to add “several hundred thousand” to that number. “While not directly related to the campaign of mass internment, these labor transfers can include persons who have been released from internment camps,” he said.
The news comes two weeks after U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a Withhold Release Order blocking all imports from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a sprawling paramilitary organization that produces one-third of cotton in China, over concerns about the use of forced Uyghur labor to farm and process the fiber. The Treasury Department has also placed the XPCC on its sanctions list, prohibiting all American companies and citizens—or non-American companies and citizens subject to U.S. jurisdiction—from engaging with the organization, whether directly or indirectly.
Though mechanized harvesting in XPCC regions reached a share of 83 percent in 2019, more than 70 percent of the high-quality long-staple cotton predominantly cultivated in southern Xinjiang is still processed manually, Zenz said. State policies touting “poverty alleviation through employment,” he said, have bolstered the numbers of local minority pickers while reducing the area’s reliance on outside Han Chinese migrant laborers.
“The intensive two- to three-month period of cotton picking represents a strategic opportunity to boost rural incomes, and therefore plays a key role in achieving the state’s poverty alleviation targets,” he wrote, though he noted that cotton picking is “grueling and typically poorly paid work.”
Workers are closely monitored with on-site surveillance by government officials—and, on occasion, police officers—to ensure that pickers have a “stable” state of mind and “administer political indoctrination sessions” designed to “lead all ethnic workers to obey the law and to proactively resist illegal religious activities,” Zenz said, quoting a government notice. Some districts place Uyghur children and seniors into centralized care while working-age adults are dispatched to pick cotton.
“The report brings sharper clarity to our understanding of forced-labor risk in the apparel supply chain, providing significant new evidence that forced labor is not only present in Xinjiang’s all-important cotton sector, but that it is systematic,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a member of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, told Sourcing Journal.
“Any brand or retailer that imagines it can credibly justify continuing to source cotton from the Uyghur region should read this report.”
Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), sponsor of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would assume all goods manufactured in Xinjiang are made with forced labor unless “clear and convincing evidence” demonstrates otherwise, called on the Senate Tuesday to shepherd the legislation into law following its passage in the House of Representatives in September.
“We know forced labor is widespread and systematic in Xinjiang,” he said in a statement. “We also know that many global corporations are complicit in the exploitation of Uyghur forced labor and these products continue to make their way into global supply chains and our country. It is long past time for the Senate to stand up to the Chinese government and stop listening to corporate lobbyists who are working to weaken the legislation.”
The New York Times previously wrote that Apple, Coca-Cola and Nike are reportedly lobbying the Senate to weaken or kill the legislation despite claiming zero tolerance for forced labor in their supply chains. In July, the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region urged brands to sever ties with suppliers complicit in modern slavery and end all sourcing from Xinjiang, from cotton fiber to finished garments.
Brands that have cited the strength of their codes of conduct and social auditing efforts will be increasingly hard pressed to prove compliance with federal statutes, which prohibit the importation of merchandise mined, manufactured or produced, wholly or in part, by forced labor, including convict labor, forced child labor and indentured labor. A number of supply-chain auditing firms, including Bureau Veritas and Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, said they are no longer conducting inspections in Xinjiang because they’re unable to acquire the necessary amount of access to conduct due diligence. The Better Cotton Initiative stopped auditing and certifying farms in Xinjiang due to similar apprehensions.
“Companies need to come clean about their corporate lobbying on this bill and the Senate must pass this bill as is,” said Cathy Feingold, international director at AFL-CIO. “By uncovering back room attempts to water down the bill, the public now knows that household brands have spun lie after lie to cover up their ties to factory camps in the Uyghur region and skirt corporate liability. Without these public disclosures or accountability, we can only assume their goal is to continue to profit off the forced labor of the Uyghur people.”