Fashion’s Forced Labor Test in Xinjiang

The plight of the Uyghurs is a moral crisis wrapped in a sourcing quandary for fashion — and legislation brewing on Capitol Hill could force brands to come up with some kind of a supply-chain answer soon. 

It’s a thorny issue for the industry, which is still working to rehabilitate its image on workers’ rights, but is extremely clear cut in one sense — no fashion executive or brand wants to be associated with what is broadly described as the largest internment of an ethnic minority since 1945.

Beyond that, it is an issue complicated by the fact that 20 percent of the world’s cotton comes from China’s Xinjiang province, where more than one million people from the Muslim minority group are in what are described by human rights advocates and other critics as concentration camps but the Chinese government says are educational ones.

While fashion and retail trade groups have pushed for Washington to muster its allies and pressure Beijing on the issue, the House passed a bill with broad bipartisan support that, if made law, could force brands to prove that the cotton in their styles don’t come from Xinjiang. 

It remains to be seen just how fashion brands could or would have to prove that, but activists that pushed the bill and have called for a ban on all goods from the region said it’s time for fashion to step up.

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“You cannot, in this day and age, use as an alibi a claim of ignorance about what’s taking place in your global supply chain,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “The origin of cotton as well as yarn is not some unfathomable information. What it boils down to is, they have to find out from their fabric supplier where the yarn comes from and then find out from the yarn supplier where the cotton comes from. They should be working with their fabric suppliers to ensure that yarn and cotton is sourced from responsible products. It’s not that complicated.”

The Worker Rights Consortium is part of a coalition of more than 200 human and labor rights organizations that have called for a blanket ban and is pushing for brands to make public pledges that they are not importing goods with inputs from Xinjiang, which is known to locals as East Turkistan.

Nova said there have been signs of progress — pointing to PVH Corp.’s statement that it would exit the region within a year — but added that it is action from brands that’s sorely needed. 

“They have a legal obligation as well as an ethical obligation to ensure they are not using forced labor in their supply chains,” Nova said. “This is a fundamental moral test for the global garment industry.”

It’s also a logistical test.

A spokeswoman for PVH, which operates Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, said the company “is working in partnership with our suppliers and is engaged in industry conversations on traceability and verification tools and approaches to ensure that our supply chain has no exposure to Xinjiang.”

PVH has noted “forced labor is considered a zero-tolerance issue and any confirmed instances of forced labor by our suppliers may result in termination of the business relationship.”

Apparel executives maintain that, since cotton is traded globally and often mixed at the processing or yarn-making facility, proving goods don’t include any inputs Xijiang is easier said than done. 

And the system of third-party checks that brands use to ensure supply chain integrity has broken down with auditors refusing to put their stamp of approval on goods from the region, pushing the brands themselves toward some kind of action. 

Avedis Seferian, chief executive officer of WRAP, which stands for Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, said his group stopped accepting audit requests for Xinjiang last year. 

“It’s a matter of confidence in the credibility of the audit,” said Seferian, noting auditors, for instance, need to be able to move about freely and choose their own translators.  “That’s where the rubber hits the road and it becomes a very difficult question. Being able to prove you’re sourcing ethically is a very difficult challenge.

“In the abstract, I’d like to think that it is possible to be working in Xinjiang in an ethical way,” he said. “I would not want to imagine everything there is so bleak and everywhere is [using] forced labor. Can you prove it? That’s a hard one. Right now, independent validation is next to impossible.”

Xinjiang is not a major center for apparel production, but it is key cotton hub.  

“The challenge with a blanket ban is precisely in its unknowability and you need to prove a negative as a result just to get your goods in,” Seferian said. 

The road ahead could only get trickier for brands. 

A business advisory from the U.S. federal government this summer advised that companies with supply chains that touch Xinjiang face “the reputational, economic, and legal risks of involvement with entities that engage in human rights abuses, including but not limited to forced labor.”

The official advisory pointed to specific abuses, including “mass arbitrary detentions, severe physical and psychological abuse, forced labor and other labor abuses, oppressive surveillance used arbitrarily or unlawfully, religious persecution, political indoctrination, forced sterilization, and other infringements of rights.” 

Last month, a Chinese-produced white paper on employment and labor rights in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region rebutted complaints from abroad. 

“For years, certain international forces, guilty of ideological bias and prejudiced against China, have been applying double standards in Xinjiang, criticizing ‘breaches of human rights’ while ignoring the tremendous efforts Xinjiang has made to protect human rights,” the white paper said. 

“They have fabricated facts to support their false claims of ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang, and smeared the local government’s work on employment and job security,” the paper said. “Their acts amount to a denial of the fact that the local people in Xinjiang enjoy the right to work, aspire to move out of poverty and backwardness and are working towards that goal.”

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