The world’s clothiers have been confronted with a dirty secret: 20% of the world’s cotton — including supplies used to make their haute couture — is being picked by the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group in China. And they’re not working in the fields willingly.
(CN) — There’s a gulag in the vast Eurasian Steppe with a million lost souls crammed into dank, hole-in-the-wall cells. Its residents sleep on hard, bedbug-infested mats, eat watered down soup and use a bucket in the corner.
It’s the kind of place that makes New York City’s notorious main jail on Rikers Island look like a subpar motel. Their offence? Being Uighur — a small handful of their kind accused of terrorism became enough to damn the whole lot under China’s hardline approach.
Conflict between the Han and Uighurs is nothing new. In 1765, after putting down the Uighur’s Ush rebellion, the Manchus ordered the massacre of an entire rebel town — killing the men and enslaving the women and children. The conflict has devolved from there and taken on new forms over the centuries.
In modern-day China, many of the most prominent TV and movie stars are from this region, partly because of their Western-accented facial features.
The gulag is partitioned into three groups: the religious, the criminal — real or imagined — and those who have traveled abroad. The prisoners are forced to sing the praises of Chinese leader Xi Jinping before being allowed to eat their meager fare, and disobeying a guard earns you a few days of lugging around a 50-pound metal suit.
For years, China refused to even acknowledge these internment camps existence, parroting a list of official talking points suggesting the government is only interested in helping a group of impoverished residents. But satellite images don’t often lie.
And the prisoners’ misery doesn’t end at the cell block. The BBC recently reported China is renting out half a million detained Uighurs to pick cotton in what amounts to slave labor, but which China callously brands as “vocational training.”
There are around 11 million Uighurs living in and around Xinyang. A mostly Muslim Turkic group, they have their own customs, clothes and language, or at least had. In recent years, the Chinese government has been forcing them to trade all that in for Mandarin lessons and “superior” Han Chinese culture. The government has even encouraged ethnic Han Chinese citizens to move to Xinjiang to dilute the Uighur’s influence in that region — ensuring the whip remains in the right hands.
This month, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced customs personnel at U.S. ports of entry will detain shipments of Chinese cotton coming from Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) and its affiliates. XPCC is the quasi-military organization in China responsible for running the prison camps and producing a third of the country’s cotton.
Prior to the ban, more than 500 million products containing XPCC cotton entered the U.S. every year, according to labor rights group Worker Rights Consortium. Major fashion brands have been working for months to ferret out any Xinjiang-produced cotton from their supply chains, yet few are able to prove that their goods were manufactured by willing and well-treated employees.
With one-fifth of the world’s cotton supplied by a region littered with internment camps and rife with forced labor, some of your favorite retailers may well be complicit. Because the global retail supply chain is nebulous at best, it’s not always clear where raw materials like cotton actually originate, or how, and few companies appear willing to speak up.
At this point, gulag-produced cotton can be found on the racks of nearly every major American and European retailer.
Robert-Jan Bartunek, a senior manager at German sportswear maker Puma, said his company actively avoids sourcing any cotton from Xinjiang and will cut ties with any supplier who does. Puma was mentioned in the Australian Strategy Institute’s report on forced labor in Xinjiang among the companies who are complicit, an allegation he vehemently denies.
“Every manufacturer of Puma has to go through a compliance audit for social and environmental standards before starting the business relationship,” Bartunek said in an email. “Only those manufacturers who pass this audit are included in our supplier base. After starting the business relationship, our manufacturers are checked annually for compliance with our standards; so they are reaudited every year.”
A representative from Nike also confirmed that the company doesn’t use products from the Xinjiang region, while acknowledging that tracing the source of the raw materials used in their products remains a challenge across the apparel industry.
“Nike is committed to ethical and responsible manufacturing and we uphold international labor standards,” the Nike representative said in an email. “We are deeply concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to, the XUAR [Xinjuang Uighur Autonomous Region]. We do not source products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.”
Requests for supply chain details from fashion retailers Gap, Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger and The North Face’s parent company VF had not been answered by press time.
Dr. Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington who uncovered the trove of documents detailing the forced labor camps, called the evidence damning.
“For the first time we not only have evidence of Uighur forced labour in manufacturing, in garment making, it’s directly about the picking of cotton, and I think that is such a game-changer,” Zenz told the BBC. “Anyone who cares about ethical sourcing has to look at Xinjiang, which is 85% of China’s cotton and 20% of the world’s cotton, and say, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’”
Xinjiang, China’s largest province, covers an area spanning 640,000 square miles — about four times larger than California. It’s mostly covered with desert and dry grasslands, less than 10% of which is inhabitable, bisected by the Tian Shan mountain range. Half of Xinjiang’s 25 million residents are Uighurs, who mainly live within the narrow agricultural belts stretching along the foothills.
China rejects the notion of the Uighurs being an indigenous group, and merely classifies them among the country’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. While studies differ in their numbers, many found Uighurs to be ethnically closer to Caucasians than they are to Han Chinese.
While China claims these individuals have volunteered to work in the cotton fields, the documents released this week reveal a tale of one Uighur village whose occupants refused to participate. Government officials visited the village repeatedly for “thought education work.” What threats they made remain unknown — but they managed to ship off 20 previously reluctant villagers to those dank, concrete cells, with plans to send another 60 soon.
An offence as seemingly inconsequential as installing an encrypted messaging app or traveling out of the country has proven sufficient to round up an entire family. Many Uighurs have been stranded overseas, forced to weigh the fear of slavery should they return with the knowledge that their families in China are stuck with the bill for their escape.