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Uighur people and forced labour: what responsibilities for the fashion industry

1. Introduction: are human rights relevant for businesses?

Human Rights Treaties do not create legal obligations upon private entities, since States have to translate their norms within national legal systems and guarantee their execution. There are several tools at governments’ disposal to protect human rights: labour laws, anti-discrimination laws, health and security laws, environmental laws.

However, what happens if these legal instruments do not cover the full human rights spectrum, are ineffective or not in place? It can generate situations of risk, as for the Uighur case in China. Human rights violations in the Xinjiang region are well known for a while: Chinese social engineering policies have targeted Uighur ethnic-linguistic and religious minority, who are subject to systematic actions of cultural assimilation and internment in the so-called re-educational camps, followed by mass transfers in the regional factories and in other area [1]. On top of that, there is the involvement of national and international companies that profit from the work force of these people [2]. Therefore, human rights violations can have a relevant impact on private entities, because being in a globalized market economy - where what happens in a part of the world has an effect elsewhere - private companies that externalize part or the entire production and supply chain take advantage from the local State negligence or its violations.

The analysis below will examine the case of the Uighur people and the implications (and therefore responsibilities) for companies in the garment sector that have economic ties with China and are linked with what is happening on the region.

2. Human rights violations of the Uighur people: what is happening in China

In the Xijiang region,Uighur ethnic-linguistic and religious minority is the victim ofan assimilation and cultural annihilation campaign. In attempting to assimilate them, the Chinese government is erasing their culture and religion, eliminating their basic human rights at the same time. Those among them, who manage to escape abroad and denunce China actions, are threatened and intimidated (Cina, Amnesty International denuncia campagna di intimidazione contro gli uiguri all’estero).Practices impemented by China amount to sterilization campaigns, forced abortions and birth addressing the Uighur minority. Besides human rights violations pertaining their sexual and reproductive rights, there is the forced mass detention in the camps of political re-education in the Xinjiang region, where labour exploitation practices are implemented by the Chinese authorities. These practices have reached worrying levels to get the attention of the European Parliament, making a statement on the 30th June 2020 (Chair's statement on Chinese Communist Party campaign to suppress Uyghur birth-rates) in which it declared a cultural genocide.

The European Parliament was not the only one to take a stand, urging the Chinese Government to stop human rights violations against the Uighur people. A coalition of 190 trade unions and NGOs (End Uyghur Forced Labour) is putting pressure on the fashion industry for its responsibilities in the labour exploitation in the supra mentioned camps. As follows, it will be described the current situation of the Uighur people regarding the re-educational camps and the role played by fashion companies operating in China.

3. Background story: historical frame and context of reference

The Xinjiang is the most extended region of China, which after a brief time of indipendence in the ’40 went back under China control in 1949 and then it became an autonomous region. The presence in the region of the Turkish-speaking and Muslim (Sunni) minority reaches nearly 10 million over 19 million inhabitants, but the Xinjiang is the home for other minorities as well such as the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz, the Tartars, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks.

The area is rich in natural resources, especially oil and natural gases, therefore has been witnessing an intense immigration flow for economic and job-related reasons from the Han ethnic group, with the full support from the Chinese government. Nevertheless, the phenomenon has triggered conflicts and tensions since in parallel to the migratory flow of the Han, the Uighur minority began to suffer discrimination and marginalization by the authorities. Over time, an anti-Han and separatist sentiment has developed on the part of the Uighurs, which has resulted in violent demonstrations starting from the 90s onwards, escalating into an ethnic conflict.

Following the violent 2009 protests in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, the Chinese government took the opportunity to eradicate separatist sentiment to implement repressive policies, harming religious freedom and imposing mass control measures, under the guise of fighting the terrorism and separatist extremism [3], since Uyghur separatists have often carried out attacks and several fighters have joined al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, it is the government's economic interests that play a role in the Chinese government campaign against the Uighurs, as China is part of the Belt and Road Initiative , also called the ‘New Silk Road’. Actually, the Han ethnic group will benefit economically from the detriment of Uyghur minority, which remains highly marginalized and victim of abuse [4].

4. Internment policies in re-education camps: cultural annihilation and mass surveillance

The human rights situation of Uighurs in China has already been under the lens of the international community for some time, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) itself criticized the use of internment and indoctrination policies of the Muslim minority. The criticisms, of course, first were denied, to then give a legal guise to these places by stating that they are vocational training centers [5]. However, human rights NGOs, researchers and former residents of these 'camps' have reported testimonies describing them as concentration camps or prisons, in which Uighurs and Muslims of other minorities, roughly 1 to 3 million arbitrarily detained, suffer psychological indoctrination of a political nature, having to study the propaganda of the Communist Party. Not only that, it is reported that waterboarding practices and the so-called 'tiger bench' and other forms of torture, such as sexual abuse and forced sterilization, are carried out as part of the indoctrination program. These are tactics that are recognized as crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute).

According to a New York Times inquiry, the internment takes place indiscriminately, for the mere fact of being a Uyghur or a Muslim, since according to the testimonies received the goal is thetotal erasure of Uyghur culture and identity. One of the tools used by the Chinese government is to separate children from their families, if their parents are in these centers, by making them reside in state orphanages, where they lose their culture and their language. All contacts with the family of origin is disrupted, subjecting the residents / inmates to mass surveillance, through the use of hi-tech technologies, which it also uses to control its own citizens, and the Xinjiang is the most controlled region of the nation.

One of the so-called 're-education camps' for Uighurs in China

5. Working conditions in the garment factories: ‘poverty reduction’ and re-education

A key element in controlling and dominating the Uyghur ethnic minority is a vast system of labour exploitation, as reported by the Center for Strategic & International Studies - CSIS (Connecting the Dots in Xinjiang. Forced Labor, Forced Integration, and Western Supply Chain), , in and out of re-education camps. In fact, with the intensification of massive internment practices, there has also been an intensification of the transfer of people from these camps to textile factories in the region and the rest of the nation, under the banner of ‘poverty reduction’ in rural areas.

Based on official documents, the government is forcing quotas of members belonging to the Uighur minority to work in these textile factories, offering these companies incentives to train these individuals who often come from re-education camps. Paid below the minimum wage, the training they receive is described by the 'military' style testimonies, which suggests a certain 'awareness' of the situation on the part of companies in the sector. In addition, recruitment is not always voluntary. On the basis of direct evidence, those employed in these factories are forced to sleep in the dormitories of the re-education camps and kept under strict surveillance, without the possibility of leaving on their own initiative. Another element that links the work in these factories with the cultural annihilation policies of Chinese government policies is the emphasis that is placed in official government and corporate documents on the 're-education' of minorities must be part of the training of the new workforce, in order to 'helping' the Uighurs to be part of Chinese society. Analysing these conditions, supported by official documentation and direct testimonies of those who have experienced them, it is clear that this is a situation of strong exploitation, such as to suggest the definition of forced labour.

6. The implications in the abuse of Uighurs: indirect responsibility of the fashion industry

Currently, given the strong presence of the textile-manufacturing sector in the area, many major clothing brands benefit from the policies of the Chinese government against the Uighurs.

However, the CSIS Report reports that the link with factories in the Xinjiang region is not always direct. In fact, Western companies buy (in several cases they buy materials produced in this area through the parent company) tons of cotton, yarns, fabrics and finished products that are processed in the Xinjiang region, with the possibility that they could therefore be the result of the exploited labour of this population. Imports from Xinjiang are such that 1 in 5 cotton garments sold globally contain raw materials from this area of ​​China.

However, the implications of the garment industry in contributing to forced labour as a practice of cultural annihilation of the Uighurs take other forms as well. In fact, companies that operate or have commercial relations and lucrative agreements with local Chinese companies in the sector invest in financing programs in favour of Xinjiang companies, creating partnerships with local realities or creating companies themselves from scratch that they manage directly. Furthermore, as described in the previous paragraph, they are also involved in government re-education policies as they employ ex-inmates from re-education camps as part of the cultural assimilation process, but give them the name of vocational training.

Consequently, it can only be a use that characterizes the production and distribution process of large foreign and local companies. Our clothes are therefore polluted by human rights violations endorsed by the fashion industry, which is indirectly responsible for the abuses perpetrated by China, which disguises its actions in the form of state-sponsored work.

7. Identifying Forced Labour in Xinjiang: The Importance of Definitions

In order to establish the link between what is happening in the Chinese region of Xinjiang and a violation of fundamental human rights, it is necessary to start from the 20th Convention of the International Labour Organization. According to article 2 “…the term forced or compulsory labour means any work or service extorted from a person under threat of punishment or for which that person has not volunteered”, going to be included in the context of an employment relationship that may or may not have a formal nature, which can also accompany other elements that characterize the reality of the phenomenon in question as multiform. The element that provides the key to the working conditions of the Uighur people is the voluntary (absent) with which the work is offered. In a press conference in July 2019, the Chinese government announced a massive release of people detained in these re-education camps to join the workforce of local factories. This is just an example of the practice that over time has intensified of transferring members of the Uighur people from the camps directly to the factories, as part of their re-education and integration into the Chinese social fabric. Since the Chinese government usually covers its assimilation and exploitation campaign with party propaganda, it is undeniable that the environment described in the previous paragraphs is heavily coerced by the Chinese government for Uighurs to work in factories in the region. Furthermore, the fact that the people employed in the factories come directly from these camps where they are forcibly detained for alleged crimes, adds a causal link with a situation of ‘threat of punishment’, as the people involved may fear to continue to suffer torture.

8. Corporate responsibility in the violation of human rights: social responsibility and due diligence

The cornerstone on which what can still be considered a work in progress of the obligations of companies in terms of human rights rests is ‘The Protect, Respect and Remedy’ Framework of the United Nations. It is divided into 3 pillars (the obligation of States to protect; the social responsibility of companies to respect; the obligation to guarantee access to effective remedies), of which the second concerns private subjects such as companies: it is a corporate social responsibility which imposes not an obligation, but a duty to respect human rights, throughout the supply chain and the production chain and in relations with other external companies, given that the activities have virtually an impact on the entire spectrum of internationally recognized rights. Moreover, companies must take into consideration the country to which they outsource their activities or with which they have commercial relationships and the reference context, as it could influence the challenges in terms of social impact. This applies perfectly to the above situation. For some time now China has been under the scrutiny of the international community and beyond, for the question of the Uyghur people. Add also the direct involvement of those companies that participate in rehabilitation programs employing Uighur workers.

In order to demonstrate compliance with the standards imposed by international human rights law, companies must comply with the so-called due diligence, i.e. the application of an internal monitoring process that involves all levels of the supply and production chain, evaluating the impact of the company on human rights.

9. Conclusions: recommendations and invitation to be part of the solution and not the problem

In line with what was established on corporate social responsibility by another instrument (also here unfortunately still soft law), the ‘Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights’, companies should examine and evaluate the impact of forced labor on the supply and production chain and their involvement with the policies of assimilation and annihilation towards the Uighur people. In particular, the responsibility to respect human rights requires that companies:

1. Avoid causing or contributing to the negative impacts of their activities and address them when they occur;

2. Try to prevent or mitigate negative human rights consequences that have a direct connection with their activities, products or services due to their business relationships, even if they have not contributed in any way (Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights, II Pillar).

It is a liability for actions and omissions. In the case of the Uighur workforce employed in the garment factories located in Xinjiang, in addition to the negligence in not verifying or simply ignoring the provenance of the raw materials used in the clothes we wear, there is also some direct involvement with the Chinese assimilation campaign of the Uyghur people.

The fact that behind there is a State, giving a sort of semblance of legality, obviously does not legitimize such conduct.

Once the above is operationally implemented, companies should realize that they are in a unique position to negotiate with the Chinese authorities the respect of Uighur rights: that is, they have the power to pressure the Chinese government to stop this social engineering campaign, disguised as fight against terrorism, aimed at realizing their economic interests in the region [6].

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Uighur people and forced labour_what responsibilities for the fashion industry_Chiara Mele
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[1] ‘Cina: Uiguri, un popolo in pericolo’, ARTE Reportage, Autore: Antoine Védeilhé e Angélique Forget, Regia: Antoine Védeilhé e Angélique Forget, available at:

[2] Two Japanese clothing brands Muji and Uniqlo (but not only) have been accused of involvement in abuses against the Uighurs, ‘Japanese brands Muji and Uniqlo flaunt 'Xinjiang Cotton' despite Uyghur human rights concerns’, Erin Handley & Bang Xiao, News, 1st November 2019

[3] China has a long history of 're-education through labour' and 'reform through labour' practices, as well as 'transformation through re-education', a social engineering concept often applied in the Xinjiang region, and even 'de-extremisation' practices towards local Muslim minorities. For further details, ‘New Evidence for China’s Political Re-Education Campaign in Xinjiang’, Global Research & Analysis, The James Town Foundation.

[4] ‘Uiguri: storia di persecuzione e repressione nello Xinjiang cinese’, Osservatorio Diritti, 24 April 2019, available at:

[5] ‘China says UN criticism of human rights record is 'politically driven'’, The Gurdian, available at:;

For more information on the links and responsibilities of the big Italian clothing brands: REPORT 2020: Fuori dall’ombra: riflettori puntati sullo sfruttamento nell’industria della moda, Clean Clothes Campaign

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