Fashion firms rolling up their sleeves against Uyghur genocide
Thursday February 11 2021
The Trade Bill that is currently going through Parliament is a potentially valuable instrument for holding countries committing genocide to account. Essentially, proposed amendments provide a mechanism for Parliament to scrap trade deals with states found by the High Court to be committing such atrocities. As mounting evidence is unearthed surrounding China’s policies of forced labour, widespread sexual abuse, torture, forced sterilisation, and the destruction of cultural and religious sites of the Uyghur population, this amendment is particularly timely and much needed.
As increasingly alarming reports emerge of Uyghur Muslims’ mass forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region, major fashion brands are also taking action to align business practices with their ethical responsibility to stand against flagrant human rights abuses. With Xinjiang accounting for 85% of China’s cotton production and 20% of the global supply, the UK Government expressed concerns that companies are not carrying out due diligence checks on whether their produce is sourced from Xinjiang and made using forced labour. However, the onus equally falls on the Government, with human rights campaigners pressing for tangible outcomes such as sanctions and amendments to the Trade Bill 2019-21 (Trade Bill). As China’s systematic repression of the Uyghur population has so far been seemingly carried out with virtual impunity, the need for wide-scale, preventative action against genocide is more urgent than ever
The Chinese state has been globally condemned for its systematic abuses of the Uyghur Muslims – conduct the US recently labelled as genocide. The ethno-nationalistic crackdown on the Uyghur community includes a chilling programme of indoctrination, with Chinese authorities arbitrarily detaining swathes of people in internment or “re-education” camps, and subjecting them to torture, indefinite confinement, and even death. There are also reports of over 570,000 Uyghurs and other minorities being forced to pick cotton by hand as well as the forcible sterilisation of Uyghur women. These specific atrocities are part of the broader draconian impositions on religious and cultural practices by the Chinese state. As evidence increasingly points to genocide, steering worldwide attention to the exigent human rights crisis, industries and governments are being pressed to address their knowing or unknowing complicity.
With many if not most global fashion brands complicit in Uyghur forced labour, fashion firms are increasingly feeling the pressure to embed ethical trading standards within business frameworks, including through ensuring supply chains are free from forced labour. However, many brands, such as H&M and Stella McCartney, have admitted that it is “extremely difficult” to trace raw materials’ origins. Indeed the 2019 Ethical Fashion report reveals that 69% of the participating companies could trace final stage suppliers, 18% traced all inputs suppliers and only 8% traced raw material suppliers; highlighting widespread unawareness in the fashion industry of where inputs and raw materials are sourced. Such trends indicate how minimal levels of traceability in the earlier stages of production obfuscate labour exploitation. The further along the supply chain – and thus removed from companies’ visibility – the more vulnerable the workers are to exploitation and the lesser the likelihood of redress. Therefore, considering the prevalence of forced labour at earlier production stages, companies must make concerted efforts to trace the origins of their produce.
Furthermore, transparency is integral in marking a company’s commitment to accountability and ensuring the visibility of worker rights violations. In 2019, only 29% of companies shared data about their overall auditing results with the general public regarding final stage production and only 1% regarding their raw materials. Similarly, 37% of brands published a full list of their final stage suppliers along with factory addresses, but only 5% did so for raw materials. However, civil society initiatives are beginning to kick-start changes within the fashion industry in openly taking a stance against worker exploitation. Marks & Spencer became one of the first major brands to back a drive by The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, urging companies to sever supply chains from Xinjiang that profit from forced labour. Such public commitments are fundamental to inspiring others in the industry to follow suit and collectively increase the economic leverage.
Meanwhile, the criticism levelled at the UK Government’s stance has underscored the absence of concrete action in the face of “gross and egregious” human rights abuses, including its failure to impose sanctions on China. The UK has introduced export restrictions with large firms facing fines if they fail to publish statements showing that their supply chains are free from forced labour. However, civil rights groups such as Anti-Slavery International and Freedom United have called for more punitive measures stating that mere guidance is insufficient for holding companies liable for abuses that occur within their chain of supply.
More recently, the Government narrowly won a vote in Parliament to defeat changes to the Trade Bill that would have outlawed trade deals with countries that the High Court rules are committing genocide, such as China against the Uyghur population. The Government then managed to use Parliamentary manoeuvring to block a vote on a revised amendment that would mean that the High Court can determine whether genocide is taking place, and, if confirmed, a debate would be held in Parliament to withdraw from any trade deals with the country in question. While weaker than the original amendment, the revised version is an important mechanism to hold countries such as China to account.
Indeed, given that the UK cannot declare a genocide without a court ruling and that the only existing avenues for such a ruling are the International Criminal Court (which China claims has no jurisdiction) and the International Court of Justice (which China can veto at the UN Security Council), the amendment would prove a vital route in securing a judicial determination of genocide and exacting significant penalties for human right abuses. While the current state of the amendment is now unclear, in the words of Lord Blencathra, it is essential that “genocide must trump unfettered capitalism” and MPs must set aside partisan allegiances and commit to defending against atrocities committed against some of the most vulnerable communities in the world.