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Tracing Supply Chains: Chinese Forced Labour Camps

Sustainable development goal 12 is responsible consumption and production – for this goal to be achieved, both consumers and businesses need to take action. In the current model implemented by the fashion industry, this can be difficult due to complex supply chains. The complex system of contractors and outsourcing makes it difficult to track the origins of the materials used to create final consumer products. This can lead to consumers inadvertently supporting unethical business practices. The process of outsourcing manufacturing also allows businesses to deny involvement in unethical business practices such as forced labour. With supply chains hidden or too complex to understand, consumers are unable to make informed purchase decisions. There has been a growth in supply chain transparency but the industry still has a long way to go. It is often only when situations are brought to the media’s attention that businesses take action to investigate contractors and modify their supply chain. One such incident is the growing knowledge of force factory labour in the far-west Xinjiang region of China.

China has seen substantial economic growth over recent decades; however, the benefits of this growth have been unevenly distributed throughout society. The Xinjiang region is located in the far-west area of China. It is the largest region of the country and is semi-autonomous; however, this autonomy has been challenged by the national government. The area is home to the Muslim Uighur minority, which is said to be experiencing a cultural genocide implemented by the Chinese government. The Muslim religion has been almost completely banned and one million people have been detained within re-education camps. The human rights violations were brought to the international community’s attention in 2018. Currently no action has been taken aside from a few nations issuing public statements. Associate Professor James Leibold from La Trobe University Australia said that the Chinese government are attempting to re-engineer the thoughts, behaviour and beliefs of the Uighurs. They hope that through re-education they will become loyal to the communist party.

While there are many fundamental human rights issues around detaining people within re-education camps, this post focuses on responsible consumption and production, so what is the relationship? The ultimate goal of the re-education programme is not to detain Uighurs indefinitely. After the educational programmes, they funnel people to work in textile factories – mostly cotton production. These labour schemes allow for ongoing social control of the region. The government is also using the detainee labour to encourage factories to move to Xinjiang, offering subsidies and other incentives to entice businesses. Through government documents and aerial pictures, German academic Adrian Zenz has identified that an increasing number of factory buildings are emerging both within and around the re-education camps.

China has long been a manufacturing powerhouse with many international brands sourcing materials and manufacturing within the country. Many global brands source materials from Xinjiang, including Ikea and H&M. Some brands have started to investigate the labour conditions within factories that they use while others have continued business as usual. As the number of detainees moved into forced labour continues, it will become increasingly challenging to determine which products are manufactured using forced labour. While a single consumer alone is unable to change this massive human rights violation, we can all play our part. Before making a purchase, do your research into an organisation’s supply chain. Avoid organisations that source cotton from China and if supply chain information is not readily available, contact the brand to see what they say. Take a stand with your purchases, support brands with responsible practices and make a choice not to support businesses who source their products from the Xinjiang region.

Source: New York Times: China's Detention Camps for Muslims Turn to Forced Labour -

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