In this Sept. 21, 2018, photo, Uighur drivers have their vehicles checked at a police check point in Hotan, in western China's Xinjiang region.

Fashion is appealing to President Donald Trump’s administration — again — for more leadership in taking on forced labor in China

Even as the dire plight of minority Muslim Uyghurs in the autonomous and far western region of Xinjiang has become clearer with growing accounts of forced labor and abuse under the guise of reeducation, the big and complex issue has been met with a variety of responses and, at times, confusion.

And the stakes are high. 

Nearly one-fifth of all cotton is produced in Xinjiang, giving the global fashion industry a vested interest in what happens in the region. 

“A successful solution for all involved, above all the workers themselves, will require state-to-state engagement and collaborative partnerships across government, industry, labor advocacy groups, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders,” said a group of five key fashion-industry trade groups in a joint statement last week. “We again urge our nation’s leaders to immediately establish a multi-stakeholder working group to develop and deploy a collective approach that accurately assesses the problem, identifies constructive solutions to increase transparency, and protects both the rights of workers and the integrity of global supply chains.”

In the language of Washington, that’s a plea for help from an industry facing an issue that is well above its pay grade. (The groups signing on to the statement included the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America, the National Retail Federation, the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the United States Fashion Industry Association).

The Xinjiang issue cuts right across several key fault lines — the internal politics of China, the country’s touch-and-go trade relationship with the U.S. and just how much control fashion companies have and should have to have over their supply chains. The trade groups’ statement last week also came at a time when U.S.-China tensions increased even further as the U.S. forced China to close its consulate in Houston and China responded by forcing the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in California calling China a “totalitarian” state and saying that U.S. engagement with China had failed to change it.

Meanwhile, the fashion groups’ lobbyists — who have shown they at least can get together — are arguing that the issue of Xinjiang requires more coordination, a state-to-state response that would see the U.S. and other governments as well as businesses and non-governmental organizations approach China collectively and holistically. 

The industry groups are pushing Washington to take the reins, going beyond its recent steps to address forced labor in Xinjiang, which included a business advisory this month by the U.S. departments of State, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Commerce. 

The advisory warned businesses with supply chains that reach into Xinjiang that they might face “the reputational, economic, and legal risks of involvement with entities that engage in human rights abuses, including but not limited to forced labor.”

According to the advisory, “Specific abuses include mass arbitrary detentions, severe physical and psychological abuse, forced labor and other labor abuses, oppressive surveillance used arbitrarily or unlawfully, religious persecution, political indoctrination, forced sterilization, and other infringements of rights.” 

A spokesperson with China’s Ministry of Commerce said the advisory was a “severe distortion of facts,” according to Xinhua, the country’s official news service.

“The nature of the Xinjiang-related issues is not the so-called ‘human rights problems’ as smeared by the United States, but an issue of counter-terrorism and anti-secession,” the Xinhau report said. 

That’s a geo-political knot that fashion can’t untie, but clearly the many brands and merchants that ultimately make, buy or sell material or goods in the region can do something. 

The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, a group of civil society and trade unions, released a call for action last week, warning, “There is grave risk that brands and retailers across sectors are benefiting from human rights violations… Fabric made with cotton or yarn from the Uyghur Region is used by apparel factories across China and across the world. Almost every major apparel brand and retailer selling cotton products is potentially implicated.” 

The coalition said, “the only way corporations can ensure they are not unwittingly bolstering the government’s repression is…to fully extricate their supply chains from the Uyghur Region.”

Fashion lobbyists contend that for many, that might be more easily said than done, arguing that cotton can be difficult to track through the supply chain and, for instance, could be mixed with cotton from other regions, including the U.S. 

In general, activists and experts push companies to engage rather than pull out when it comes to worker abuse issues since the loss of business can further hurt the people already in trouble. And once businesses leave, they no longer have any influence to improve conditions. 

Then again, the situation in Xinjiang is not a single bad actor or rogue factory, but a regional policy with motivations beyond a few extra bucks on an order. As the U.S. advisory noted, “Laborers are sometimes transferred directly from camps to factories, are forced to attend ‘patriotic education’ and Mandarin studies, and are subjected to constant surveillance.”

Penelope Kyritsis, assistant research director at the Worker Rights Consortium, which is part of the coalition that called for fashion companies to stop working in Xinjiang, said the group typically asks brands to stay when there are troubles with working conditions and use their leverage to help fix the problems. 

“In this case, that’s simply not possible because of the Chinese government’s total control of the area, pervasive surveillance and just the general climate of terror,” Kyritsis said. “Any attempts to provide due diligence are not possible.”

Workers are simply not free to tell an inspector that their labor is coerced, but brands are free to walk away and not feed into the situation, she said.

“If a brand or retailer claims they don’t know where their cotton or yarn is coming from, it’s a choice not to know,” Kyritsis said. “Brands are very much able to assess who they have relationships with and end those relationships.”

Nate Herman, who is senior vice president, policy at the AAFA, said 84 percent of the cotton grown in China comes from Xinjiang, accounting for about 18 percent of global production. 

There is very little apparel production in the region, but for the industry, most of the forced labor concerns are centered in the processing of cotton and in textile mills.

Herman argued that it can be difficult to determine just where cotton used in a brand’s supply chain comes from and that the trade group has been looking at methods to trace cotton — including the use of DNA and biomapping — over the past two years.

“We’ve spent a lot of time exploring these and seeing if any of them really work and none of them are quite there yet in terms of technology,” Herman said. “There’s a lot of promise, but not something that we can implement today or tomorrow.”

Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the NRF, said retailers are evaluating their supply chains and working with their vendors to tackle the problem, but that they need government support — and more clarity as to just what the official U.S. strategy on the issue is. 

“This can’t be an effort just by the business community to fix this situation, that’s not going to work. There needs to be a three- or four-legged stool,” Gold said, pointing to businesses, governments and other stakeholders.  “We’ve got to come up with a coordinated effort where we’re all working from the same page. We would love to know what [the U.S. government] is doing so we could help amplify [that]. What’s their strategy?”

Pointing to the long list of government power players signing onto the business advisory — from the State Department to the U.S. Trade Representative — Gold said, “There’s too many chefs in the kitchen.”

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