Uyghur forced labour: Who will take a stand?
It is feared that over 1 million Muslim Uyghurs are being held in facilities in Xinjiang, China, undergoing systematic forced labour for the supply chains of international brands. Time to take a stand.
The use of concentration camps to detain religious minorities is a practice from another era – a dark time in history we all learned about in school to make sure the same mistakes were not repeated. Yet, today, according to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Uyghurs for sale, it is believed that over 1 million Uyghurs are being held captive in facilities in Xinjiang, China. Investigations have revealed that Uyghurs are being detained to undergo systematic forced labour in supply chains of international brands. This article looks at the implications of the ongoing forced labour in these camps.
Multinationals as accomplice: The limits of corporate social responsibility
The numbers are striking. One out of five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton from the Xinjiang region which means they are most likely to be tainted with forced labour. No fewer than 83 multinationals outsource part of their production in this region and are identified by ASPI as benefiting, directly or indirectly, from the use of Uyghur workers through abusive labour programmes. These include brands such as Amazon, Apple, Zara, Nike, Google.
Some multinationals have responded to these claims when questioned about their activities in this region. In September 2020, for instance, H&M ended their indirect relationship with a cotton supplier in the Xinjiang region after evidence emerged of the use of forced labour by the supplier. Conversely, Apple responded to these allegations by claiming that no evidence has been found of forced labour in their supply chain. This contradicts a US investigation, which has blacklisted one of Apple’s key suppliers due to human rights abuses involving Uyghur Muslims.
The violation of minimum labour standards in the supply chains of multinationals actually goes against the ethical publicity of many of these companies, which publicly claim that their suppliers respect labour rights. In their codes of conduct, companies have set minimum standards of labour conditions to be implemented throughout the supply chain. Once again, this social scandal casts doubt on the effectiveness of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and proves to the world that codes of conduct can be mere window dressing. The fact that companies can and want to profit from Chinese detention camps proves how flawed the current global production system is. As a PhD candidate investigating the effectiveness of the code of conduct on work conditions in the supply chain of multinationals, this situation demonstrates how far we still have to go to motivate companies to behave ethically. It is clear that self-regulation of workers’ rights by companies is inadequate and it is time for the international legal framework to step up.
What role for the international community?
The dramatic human rights violation stated above demonstrates the urgency for a global regulatory response to take a strong stance against modern slavery. Multinationals still benefit from legal impunity on a global scale, since international treaties only bind States and not private actors. Although some documents, such as the UN Global Compact and the UN Principles on Business and Human Rights, directly target companies, these norms remain voluntary and unsanctioned when violated.
An international response to the Chinese persecution has arisen, especially in the last few months. For example, UN officials have demanded access to the camps and the EU has called on China to respect religious freedom. Civil society and NGOs have raised their voice in global coalition campaigns. They call for the immediate closure of the reeducation camps, by appealing to the clothing industry and by hashtagging on social media with #freeuyghurs. At the European level, European Parliamentarian Raphael Glucksmann has been the lead and spokesperson for the citizen campaign.
Surprisingly, the strongest stand against the situation in China has been taken by US President Donald Trump. With a blacklist of companies prohibiting the import of goods manufactured in the Xinjiang region on US soil, retaliation for brands profiting from forced labour has been immediate. Although this blacklist serves political objectives far removed from the protection of human rights, it has successfully deterred multinationals from engaging with suppliers that use forced labour.
The EU is attempting to follow this regulatory movement by imposing more obligations on companies that outsource their production. A progressive legislative proposal has been announced by Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders. This initiative, imposing an EU-wide duty of due diligence, would definitely improve the required standards of production. Hopefully, it will plant the seed for a better implementation of minimum labour standards in the supply chain. As discussed during the European consultation on this topic, the draft legislation goes far beyond the mere adoption of an import ban based on economic retaliation. It would create a level playing field for all companies operating on the EU market and establish effective enforcement of the duty of companies to take responsibility for their supply chains. Drifting from the voluntary approach of CSR, this law would finally make multinationals accountable at the supra-national level. However, despite the ambitious plan to have it adopted by 2021, it is still early days for this draft law.
As long as legal sanctions targeting private actors are not put in place applying on all territories, multinationals are free to profit from unethical labour conditions. One question that is currently debated is whether importing countries could set boundaries as to what is acceptable, and what human dignity standards they decide to implement on the production of goods they consume. If no strong stand is taken, importing countries, including those in Europe, are ultimately an accomplice to the most massive religious detention of the 21st century and to benefitting from forced labour. Silence and ignorance are no longer valid excuses.