‘Substantial volume’ of clothing tied to Uyghur forced labour entering EU, says study

Calls for legislation after dozens of brands identified as being at risk of sourcing materials linked to China’s transfer programmes

A “substantial volume” of clothing tainted by the use of Uyghur forced labour is entering the European Union market, according to a report, as campaigners say the EU’s checks are not doing enough to weed out coercive work from large supply chains.

Dozens of well-known brands including H&M and Zara are identified as being at high risk of sourcing materials, particularly cotton and PVC, made by Uyghurs compelled to participate in state-imposed labour transfer programmes, according to a report from Uyghur Rights Monitor, Sheffield Hallam University and the Uyghur Centre for Democracy and Human Rights.

The researchers investigated four leading Chinese apparel companies that have “significant ties” to Xinjiang, via sourcing, subsidiaries, and manufacturing, and have links with western brands. Those companies have supplied brands including Zara and Primark, according to the report.

Xinjiang, a region in north-west China where most of the country’s ethnic Uyghur minority live, accounts for more than 80% of China’s cotton. It is also a region where there are widespread reports of human rights abuses, including an estimated 1 million people who have been held in extrajudicial detention camps. Apart from the detention camps, however, there is also a longstanding programme of state-sponsored labour transfers, which Uyghur activists and human rights campaigners say involve a high risk of coercion.

Beijing describes these transfers as a poverty alleviation tool. Under the programmes, unemployed people are transferred to farms or factories in different locations where there is a need for workers. This happens within Xinjiang and from the region to other parts of China.

The report’s authors highlight several examples of the Chinese companies being involved in these programmes. Beijing Guanghua Textile Group, for example, has a joint venture with Xinjiang Jinghe Textile Technology, a firm with links to labour transfer programmes. In 2018, Xinjiang Jinghe said it was investing 200m yuan (£22.3m) to expand its production facilities and employ 2,000 people via rural surplus labour programmes. In March this year, a Xinjiang newspaper reported that 73 “poverty-stricken households” had sent workers to the firm to become industrial workers.

Beijing Guanghua’s parent company, Beijing Fashion Holdings, advertises its links with a number of well-known western brands, including Zara and Next. One of the group’s subsidiaries, TopNew, is a supplier for H&M.

A spokesperson for Inditex, Zara’s parent company, said the western fashion brand no longer purchased products from Beijing Guanghau Textile Group or Beijing Fashion Holdings, and had “no plans to do so in future”.

“Inditex has no commercial ties with any factories located in [Xinjiang]. Inditex is fully committed to respecting, protecting and promoting human rights across its entire value chain and rigorously adheres to all forced labour regulations. We regularly conduct detailed due diligence and monitoring of our suppliers to ensure compliance with our stringent standards and we are fully committed to the traceability of the raw materials used in our products.

“All suppliers and manufacturers of the Inditex group must comply with our traceability requirements, including selecting a supply chain made up of ethical and responsible companies and providing accurate, true and appropriate information about the supply chain used for each order, from raw materials to final garment.”

A spokesperson for H&M said: “Transparency about our supply chain is very important to us and we have come far in that work.” TopNew is listed as one of H&M group’s suppliers on its website.

A spokesperson for Primark said: “We can confirm the use of Anhui Huamao Group Co Ltd in two suppliers’ supply chains. We have spoken at length with the suppliers linked to this facility and, so far, we have not been able to find any direct link to the XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region] ... Out of caution, our supplier has agreed with us to immediately stop using the facility in question while our investigation is ongoing.”

Anhui Huamao is a textile company with three subsidiaries in Xinjiang, according to its most recent annual report.

Beijing Fashion Holdings and Next did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2020, H&M expressed concerns about the risk of forced Uyghur labour in cotton production. That led to a backlash in China and a widespread boycott of the brand, leading to a drop in sales of nearly 25%. The brand later said its commitment to China remained strong.

In December 2021, the US government passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which treats goods from Xinjiang as being tainted with forced labour – and therefore banned from the US – unless an importer can prove otherwise. To date, the legislation has resulted in more than $500m (£397) worth of goods being denied entry to the US.

The report’s researchers said: “This is a sea change that only legislation could have made happen. Companies are now subject to investigation of their entire supply chains, which has encouraged more due diligence and more visibility in what were previously incredibly opaque relationships.”

But the EU has no such stance on goods from Xinjiang, something the researchers said needed to change.

The report’s authors also noted that state-sponsored labour transfer programmes were less widely understood than Xinjiang’s detention camps, which have received widespread media attention and which, according to the UN Human Rights Office, “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.

This means that while many of the western brands named in the report celebrate their participation in ESG (environmental, social and governance) rankings and validation schemes, such as the global organic textile standard and the Better Cotton initiative, “the significance of these certifications vary widely” as they “typically do not account for state-imposed forced labour”.

“It is highly important to incorporate state-sponsored labour transfers and participation in other forms of repressive policies implemented in the Uyghur region as a red flag while evaluating companies based in mainland China,” said Yalkun Uluyol, one of the researchers.

The report was commissioned by Raphaël Glucksmann, a member of the European parliament from the centre-left Place publique party, which is part of the parliament’s Socialists & Democrats grouping.

Contributor

Amy Hawkins Senior China correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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