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Asia Pacific / China

Opinion: We must care more about forced labour in China and beyond

The world has responded slowly to China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, but at least they are receiving attention, unlike similar issues in less high-profile countries.

uyghur-camp-china
The outer wall of a complex believed to be a ‘re-education’ camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained in China’s Xinjiang region. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

China stands accused of genocide, or at the very least ethnic cleansing. The victims are the country’s 13.5 million Uyghurs based in the Xinjiang region, as well as other Muslim and ethnic minorities. 

Beijing denies all allegations, but more than one million Uyghurs have been sent to extrajudicial detention facilities since 2017, where they have undergone ideological training at ‘re-education’ camps in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’.

As part of this, the Chinese government has forced tens of thousands of Uyghurs to work in cotton fields over the past three to four years, according to numerous investigative reports from the likes of the BBC

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In recent months, big names such as H&M have made headlines for their use of Xinjiang cotton, which makes up one-fifth of the global industry. These fashion brands have ramped up international attention on the Uyghur situation, since clothing is such a visible consumer good (a sad testimony to the limitations of human empathy). Nonetheless, Western businesses have been slow to act.

Decision makers are quite happily discombobulated

The above atrocities are not new. That Western clothing brands might be sourcing unethically produced Xinjiang cotton has been a concern since at least 2019. Afraid to lose favour with Beijing and Chinese consumers, the private sector’s response has been tepid at best. 

In a March 2020 report, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute drew unavoidable press to the situation by identifying 82 companies that were potentially using, directly or indirectly, forced labour in Xinjiang. Some of the largest players on the list, such as Nike and H&M, put out statements saying ‘they prohibit forced labour in their Xinjiang supply chains’.

Meanwhile, only the largest foreign companies actually operating factories in Xinjiang (namely Germany’s Volkswagen and BASF) have come out and said that their plants are ‘free from abuses’. Thus far, no company has pledged to divest their operations in the region. In their defence, it is not clear how feasible or productive such a move would be, even if all Western business acted in unison – but this dilemma has proved a pretty convenient excuse for inaction. Let’s-see-if-things-blow-over is the spirit.

In the great geopolitical chess game, Western politicians (especially those in Washington) have been all too eager to call out China’s human rights abuses. Paradoxically, they have struggled to decide what to do about them. In short, economic concerns have dampened political vigour.

For example, Nike and Coca-Cola have lobbied hard against the US’s proposed Xinjiang Forced Labor Bill (which has now been delayed), while the UK government has dragged its feet with regards to a Trade Bill amendment that would take a stronger stance against human rights abuses abroad. Yes, both governments have deemed the Uyghur situation a ‘genocide’, but this remains wordplay, not action. 

“I don’t think a company should politicise its economic behaviour,” said a spokesperson from the Chinese government in March 2021. On the other hand, Western governments seem unsure if they should ‘economise’ their political behaviour, so to speak. 

Do we care less about forced labour in smaller economies?

Forced labour in China is nothing new. In fact, before 2018 it received remarkably little attention

That it has only now caught the world’s attention is testimony to the horrors of the Uyghur situation coming to light, but also the sheer politicisation of the issue within the US-China trade war and broader West versus China feud. 

Human rights abuses in the world’s second-largest economy warrant attention, especially when they involves potential genocide, but by the same logic, human rights abuses in geopolitically less significant economies will receive less attention (and therefore action). Just how much less is the problem. 

It is estimated that 25 million people globally are victims of forced labour, generating approximately $150m in illegal profits in the private economy, according to the UN’s International Labour Organisation. These figures are likely to get worse since Covid-19 is pushing millions more into poverty, where they are more likely to be exploited.

The US government’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) maintains a list of goods produced by child labour or forced labour, with its latest version (from 2020) made up of 155 products from 77 countries. Even a cursory glance shows that, while China is the main culprit, many other countries are guilty. 

Alongside China, cotton goods from Azerbaijan, Argentina, Benin, Brazil, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Zambia belong on ILAB’s list. 

Due to the visibility of the fashion and clothing industry, abuses in the cotton sector get a lot more attention than, say, the lobster market. Even still, most of the aforementioned countries have received much less attention than China, both in terms of media and political action. Why? Because their economies are smaller and/or less geopolitically significant. 

Companies operating or trading cotton in those countries are, therefore, under less scrutiny to ensure that their supply chains or factories are abuse-free. The problem is even worse with regards to less high-profile goods, such as bricks or cumin

Similarly, Western businesses trading with Xinjinag’s less visible markets, such as sugar beet, have also come under far less pressure than clothing brands. The same can be said about various cross-country university partnerships in the region. 

In short, labour abuse in the world’s less significant sectors or countries should not be neglected. When taken in sum, they may even form the greatest part.

Sebastian Shehadi

Sebastian Shehadi

Political editor

Sebastian Shehadi is political editor and senior editor at Investment Monitor and a contributing writer for the New Statesman.