The cotton of Xinjiang – forced labour and crimes against humanity

by Vanessa Guzek

Last week, a complaint was filed by the collective Etique sur l´Étiquette, the European Uyghur Institute, the NGO Sherpa and a private individual against the companies Inditex, Uniqlo, SMCP and Skechers in the Courts of Paris for “concealment of forced labour and crimes against humanity”.

The reason for the complaint is the continuation of cotton production in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, as well as the sale of products with cotton from this region, despite the companies’ knowledge that the Uyghur ethnic group, who make up 45% of the province’s inhabitants, are being forced by the Chinese government to pick cotton by hand.

The Uyghurs, mostly of Muslim faith, are sent into the fields for three months by the Chinese state, whether they like it or not. This is promoted in China as a working program of the poverty alleviation campaign. Part of these programs include the forced sterilization of women and placement in military-style re-education camps, which the Chinese government describes as vocational training centers to “combat religious extremism.”

The complaint filed against the various textile companies is an attempt to hold the companies accountable. This lawsuit is the first in a series that will also be filed in other European countries in the coming months.

At the end of 2020, the International Community condemned these violations and imposed sanctions against China. It was followed by the European Union, which also imposed sanctions on the country for human rights violations at the end of March this year. H&M, as well as Nike and Gap, had publicly announced at the end of 2020 that they would stop using cotton from Xinjiang due to the mistreatment of Uyghurs.

The BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) already stopped the certification of Xinjiang cotton a year ago, on the grounds that clean certification was not possible due to forced labor of Uyghurs.

However, the cotton dilemma facing textile companies today is well illustrated by the H&M example. On the one hand, values such as human dignity are considered sacrosanct and therefore non-negotiable, but on the other hand there is an international dependency, as China is one of the most important purchasing markets for cotton. As a result of the accusations and sanctions, China has responded by banning the Swedish company’s products from online platforms, the owners have closed H&M stores and influencers have stopped promoting the H&M brand . In doing so, China is sending its first message: A ban on any interference in internal affairs.

H&M CEO Helena Helmersson’s response to the Chinese boycott in a public statement perfectly describes the dilemma in which companies find themselves right now: “We want to buy responsibly, in China and elsewhere, and we are now developing a forward-looking strategy and next steps regarding our material sourcing” and stated: “We are determined to regain the trust of our fellow customers and business partners in China. But the question is: How can responsible material sourcing be done in China if nothing is done about the oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and China denies all allegations of human rights violations?

Western textile companies have been trying for years to make their supply chains more transparent, but it is almost impossible to ensure that cotton picked by forced labour is not used, because at the first stage of the processing chain, the cotton is already mixed with different cottons from various countries, and not only in China. Therefore, it is impossible to prove the origin of the cotton.

Even if companies do indeed withdraw their production from Xinjiang, this is no guarantee that their products will not contain cotton harvested under duress by Uyghurs, because China itself exports its cotton to Bangladesh, Vietnam and Pakistan, where Xinjiang cotton is mixed with cotton from these countries, and where western companies also produce and sell their products. And so the vicious circle starts all over again…

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