Leading fashion brands such as Adidas, Boohoo, H&M, Nike and Zara owner Inditex have denied selling products made with forced labor from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region following a U.K. Parliament inquiry into the risks British businesses face when engaging with supply chains that hail from China.
A hearing, held Thursday by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee, called for written and oral testimonies to plumb the “extent to which business in the U.K. are exploiting the forced labor of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of China,” where up to 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities are believed to have been rounded up and held in “re-education” camps as part of a broader campaign to coerce, repress and assimilate them into the Han-dominant Chinese society.
“There has been a wave of stories of ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and also of the use of restrictive and oppressive measures employed by the Chinese authorities against ethnic minorities in the province,” Nusrat Ghani, Conservative Minister of Parliament (MP) for Wealden and lead BEIS committee member for the inquiry, said in a statement. “The U.K., by contrast, is a beacon of freedom and hope for many but if we are truly serious about human rights’ we need to look close to home too. There are concerning accounts that many products sold in the U.K. can be traced back to forced labor at camps in China.”
More than 80 percent of Chinese cotton originates in Xinjiang, which explains why the apparel industry has drawn particular scrutiny. Because China is one of the two largest cotton producers—and Uyghur cotton accounts for more than 20 percent of the global product—roughly one in five garments sold worldwide is believed to contain fiber or yarns sourced from the northwestern region.
“In the garment industry, evidence has shown that forced labor is present in all stages of the production process, including in the planting, harvesting and processing of cotton, the spinning of yarn, the weaving of textiles and the manufacture of finished garments,” wrote members and endorsers of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, which comprises more than 280 Uyghur representative groups, civil society organizations, trade unions, faith-based groups and investors.
Both the scale of repression and the level of state control in Xinjiang means that it is “impossible” for any company to operate in the Uyghur region in accordance to the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the group said. As such, “virtually” the entirety of Britain’s textile and apparel industry faces the risk of being linked to the abuses of Uyghur and other Turkic peoples, whether through direct relationships with suppliers and sub-suppliers in the region or by way of connections with Chinese companies that have subsidiaries or operations located in Xinjiang, have accepted Chinese government subsidies or have employed workers provided by the government through forced labor transfer schemes.
Because third-party audits and other forms of due diligence are next to impossible to conduct—and several leading audit firms have exited Xinjiang because of the myriad restrictions that prevent satisfactory access to factories or workers—“any company which claims to be able to operate or source from the Uyghur region based on the reassurance from social audits or due diligence that no forced labor is present has failed to recognize the egregious nature of the abuses being committed in the Uyghur region,” the coalition said.
Then there’s the fact that the exploitation of Uyghurs has long spilled beyond Xinjiang’s borders. “The government of China is transporting Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples to other parts of China, where they are working in factories under conditions that strongly indicate forced labor,” it added. “These transfers appear to have continued even during pandemic in periods of lockdown, putting Uyghurs at risk of contracting the virus.”
Brands have rushed to repudiate charges of links to the region. Speaking to MPs via video conferencing, David Savman, head of supply chain at H&M, said the Swedish fashion chain worked with accreditation groups to stop buying cotton in the Xinjiang region after reports first came to light. “When these serious allegations came up, we made investigations into all of our suppliers,” he said.“We didn’t find any proof of any breach of our sustainability commitments, where we have very clear guidance of how our ethical processes should happen.”
Jaycee Pribulsk, vice president of global footwear sourcing and manufacturing at Nike, told MPs that the sportswear giant was “deeply concerned” about the situation in the region but it does not source any raw cotton. “And regarding Xinjiang, Nike has confirmed with its suppliers that there are no spun yarns or textiles manufactured in the area in our products,” he added.
Boohoo, still smarting from revelations about working conditions in its supplier factories in Leicester, England, was also grilled by the committee, with Andrew Reaney, group director of responsible sourcing at Boohoo, expressing “shock” about the situation. “We wrote to all our suppliers across the supply chain to confirm that we have no manufacturing or fabric links to that particular region,” he said. “That was done and all of our suppliers confirmed that they have no manufacturing or fabric links to that region.”
Adidas told BEIS in a written submission that while it has never manufactured products in Xinjiang, there have been “indirect linkages” with the region with respect to the production of yarn. “We have, however, eliminated those linkages,” it said, adding that it required all Tier 2 suppliers to stop sourcing processed yarn from the Uyghur region in spring of last year. “In parallel, we supported a decision by the Better Cotton Initiative—which is the primary supplier of cotton to Adidas globally—to end its licensing of Better Cotton production in Xinjiang,” Adidas said.
Inditex, too, submitted a written response claiming a “zero-tolerance approach toward forced labor of any kind” and “stringent policies and actions in place to ensure that it does not take place in our supply chain.”
On Thursday, however, the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a Washington, D.C.-based labor group, dispatched a brief noting that it has identified commercial ties between the retailer and two yarn and textile manufacturers—Huafu Fashion, which operates Zhejiang Huafu Melange Yarn, and Luthai Textile Co.—that are “complicit in the unfolding Uyghur forced labor crisis.” The group singled out, in particular, Inditex’s denial of a commercial relationship with Huafu Fashion despite “public data documenting Inditex’s ties to one of Huafu Fashion’s production facilities.” A publicly searchable database, run by China’s Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, lists Huafu and Luthai as suppliers to Inditex.
“Inditex’s apparent decision to continue sourcing from Huafu and Luthai is an act of gross irresponsibility,” Penelope Kyritsis, director of strategic research at WRC, told Sourcing Journal. “By maintaining these business relationships, Zara’s parent company is directly contributing to the forced labor crisis unfolding in the Uyghur region. The only way to end its complicity is by making the commitments outlined in the [Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region’s] call to action.”
A spokesman for Inditex told Sourcing Journal that WRC’s data is incorrect. “Inditex does not have any commercial relationship with Huafu Melange and Luthai,” he said.