The plight of Uighur Muslims in China is hardly a secret, but a video released on Tuesday by the BBC, which reportedly shows model Merdan Ghappar in a dank cell, handcuffed to a bare bed with swollen ankles and looking out over the mass detention facility where he is thought to have been interred since the beginning of the year, showed the stark reality of the crisis.
It’s one in which the fashion world is now embroiled. Most of us will own at least one T-shirt, jacket or summer dress that has been partly made by forced Uighur labour. This minority group is thought to be enduring one of the worst human rights violations the world has seen in years, and yet the fashion industry appears to be profiting from it.
Uighurs are Chinese citizens living in a province called Xinjiang, where the majority of Chinese cotton is turned into yarn, and where half the high street and a good handful of designer brands get their fabric from.
Uighurs are Muslim, have their own language and are culturally and ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese majority, but their calls for independence have caused Beijing to violently crack down. Reports by human rights groups allege that women are enduring forced sterilisations and abortions, children are being ripped from their parents and re-educated, and people of all ages, like Ghappar, are working in slave-like conditions.
The fact that most of our high-street has been implicated in this atrocity is alarming, but more understandable if you dig beyond the surface. Some stories are damning: there have been reports of indentured Uighur labour in a shoe factory that workers had been forcibly transported to, claims of gloves being made in a government detention centre and allegations that face masks have been manufactured as part of labour programmes.
But most actual clothes are, in fact, being produced a long way from Xinjiang. What brands are doing is buying fabric that has likely been made by Uighur labour – fabric that is then transported elsewhere in China, or to Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh to be turned into clothes. Chinese supply chains are complicated, and many retailers operate a "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, getting local manufacturers to order cost-efficient yarn without explicitly explaining its provenance.
“When it comes to sustainability and ethics it's out of sight out of mind,” says Melanie DiSalvo, founder of supply chain consultancy Virtue + Vice. “It's hard for consumers to say no to an amazingly priced garment when the workers who made it are so disconnected from them. Everyone wants to talk about these issues, but very few consumers are actually making changes to their purchases. Which leaves us with the question, if customers don't care, why would brands be motivated to make changes that could reduce their bottom line?”
Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, agrees that the industry lacks the motivation to reform. “There is such a strong moral case for leaving, but they don’t want to do it,” he says. “It’s China, and as well as this being the cheapest and most reliable way to get cotton, most brands have their own very serious ambitions there and they don’t want to offend the government. As a result, they make no comment about what is the largest internment of a religious minority since the Second World War.”
In a bid to force retailers to tackle the problem, the US House of Representatives is considering a bill – the Uighur Forced Labour Prevention Act – that would place the burden of responsibility on brands to ensure they aren’t producing goods made with indentured labour. The EU is considering a similar law – one that would also put CEOs in the firing line. While this subject has been raised in parliament, the UK government is yet to join them.
“The industry needs its hand forced,” explains Nova. “Retailers are doing nothing right now because they can’t defend what is taking place, and they can’t do proper audits in a region where workers aren’t able to speak freely. Yet leaving is very expensive, so instead they are choosing not to look at the situation directly.”
There is also strength in numbers. Walk into any shopping centre and at least half the stores will be relying on Xinjiang cotton, which makes it difficult to whip up a media storm, as even the most concerted Twitter campaign can’t cancel the entire high street - it’s been estimated that one in five cotton items globally originates in Xinjiang.
But change, while costly, is always possible. “[Brands could] invest in their own supply chains in China and work with local communities to create new systems on their own terms,” says DiSalvo. “[And] be held accountable for their third party auditors, instead of using them as a shield of ‘we didn't know’.” As shoppers, it is all too easy to fall into the murky waters of ignorance. Instead of checking labels (which won’t say where fabric is made) Nova urges consumers to monitor the Call to Action pledge. “We will soon know whether retailers are agreeing to end their complicity,” he says. “Continuing to patronise brands that refuse to leave means that you are likely wearing clothes made, at least in part, by people forced to work under threat of violence.”
Keeping this topic in the spotlight is the best chance we have of change. When brands are shamed into leaving the region, the entire Chinese supply chain could falter, and Beijing – worried about the economy after a harmful US trade war and the impact of the coronavirus – might rethink their Uighur policies.
“If [retailers] withdraw, it would save a number of lives,” says Nova. “Fashion brands don’t have to be active liberators, they just have to stop funding – and therefore aiding and abetting ethnic cleansing.”