The Xinjiang cotton conflict has reached a boiling point.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued five Withhold Release Orders (WRO) Monday on products reportedly produced using state-sponsored forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, where authorities are widely believed to employ modern slavery as part of a sweeping campaign to repress and assimilate some 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities.
“By taking this action, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is combating illegal and inhumane forced labor, a type of modern slavery, used to make goods that the Chinese government then tries to import into the United States,” acting DHS deputy secretary Ken Cuccinelli said in a statement. “When China attempts to import these goods into our supply chains, it also disadvantages American workers and businesses. President Trump and this Department have, and always will, put American workers and businesses first and protect American citizens from participating in these egregious human rights violations.”
The United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) expressed its dismay at the allegations of forced labor sullying critical links in the fashion supply chain. “As an industry, fashion brands and retailers do not tolerate forced labor in their supply chains,” USFIA president Julia K. Hughes told Sourcing Journal Monday. “This is an important issue where companies collaborate and share information to ensure that the rights of workers are protected throughout the supply chain.”
Hughes continued by calling for “high-level engagement and collaboration across government, industry, labor advocates and other stakeholders,” noting that fashion “cannot solve this alone.”
The new WROs direct CBP officers at all ports of entry to withhold release on goods such as apparel manufactured by Yili Zhuowan Garment Manufacturing Co. and Baoding LYSZD Trade and Business Co., which both produce leather gloves, and cotton produced by Xinjiang Junggar Cotton and Linen Co., which was dropped as a Better Cotton Initiative partner last year. The federal agency says it received information that “reasonably indicates” that the Chinese companies and their subsidiaries use prison and forced labor, as characterized by “restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages and abusive working and living conditions,” in either apparel production or raw cotton processing.
“The series of actions CBP has taken against imports from China demonstrates the pervasive use of unethical and inhumane labor conditions in China, and CBP will not turn a blind eye,” said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Trade. “Allowing goods produced using forced labor into the U.S. supply chain undermines the integrity of our imports. American consumers deserve and demand better.”
The news came on the heels of a demonstration by Uyghur activists and their allies in New York City Sunday urging prominent brands such as Nike, Uniqlo and Zara to stop sourcing cotton-made goods linked to the Xinjiang region.
In a nod to the first night of New York Fashion Week, models staged a catwalk outside Spring Studios on Varick St. in Chelsea wearing white cotton T-shirts and “bound” together with red rope. Organizations in the United Kingdom and the European Union, the groups said, will hold similar actions on the first nights of London and Paris Fashion Weeks.
“The very visceral representation of modern-day slavery that exists in the fashion industry’s links to this should cause each of us to address our own complicity in it,” Rushan Abbas, executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, said in a statement. “Slavery is larceny. It means a person was forced to give their life in order to give the consumer the luxury of an ‘affordable’ product. Think about that next time you shop fast fashion.”
Xinjiang produces more than 80 percent of Chinese cotton, according to an analysis by Washington D.C.’s Center for Strategic & International Studies. Chinese cotton, in turn, made up 22 percent of the global market in 2018-19. Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, an organization of more than 180 organizations across 36 countries, estimates that one in five cotton garments sold globally contains fiber or yarn sourced from Xinjiang, meaning that “virtually” the entire apparel industry is complicit in Uyghur-rights abuses.
In late August, 10 human-rights, labor and investor organizations, including the AFL-CIO and Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, filed a formal petition with the CBP asking it to issue a regional WRO on all cotton-made goods connected to Xinjiang. Last week, the White House was mulling a ban on some or all Xinjiang-made products, including apparel, partly in protest of the crackdown against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities and partly as another salvo in the president’s ongoing trade war against China. It remains fuzzy, however, if any proposed ban will include products containing Xinjiang cotton shipped from other regions of China or exported to countries such as Bangladesh and Cambodia before making their way to American shores.
Earlier this summer, the Trump administration placed several apparel firms, including reported current or former suppliers to major brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, on a blacklist that prevents them from buying U.S. products because of their alleged ties to forced-labor camps in Xinjiang. Several of these companies have since pushed back, citing a lack of evidence that such abuses are taking place in their supply chains, though the built-in opacity of multinational sourcing networks—not to mention the multiple levels of subcontracting—can make claims tricky to verify either way.
Uyghur-rights organizations are using the social media hashtag #ForcedLabourFashion to disseminate images, created by Uyghur artist Yettesu, that parody ads from Nike, Uniqlo and Zara, claiming that these companies source their cotton products from Xinjiang.
“Given that so much cotton is sourced from the Uyghur region, the fashion industry is uniquely culpable for forced labor, and by extension, systematic policies meant to destroy the Uyghur identity,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “Not only are brands like Nike, Zara and Uniqlo enabling forced Uyghur labor, they’re also supporting an entire system of genocidal repression. Who is picking the cotton and stitching the clothes that western consumers are wearing every day? Uyghurs. Drawn directly from mass internment camps.”
Nike and Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Zara parent Inditex referred Sourcing Journal to a previous statement that an internal investigation confirmed that it has zero “commercial relations with any factory in Xinjiang.”
Nike said in July that while it does not source directly from Xinjiang, it is “conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of Uyghur or other ethnic minorities.”
Last month, Fast Retailing released a statement highlighting its “zero-tolerance policy” for forced labor. “No Uniqlo product is manufactured in the Xinjiang region,” it said. “In addition, no Uniqlo production partners subcontract to fabric mills or spinning mills in the region.”
Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.