SHANGHAI — Chinese manufacturer Esquel Group has shot back hard over the inclusion of one of its Xinjiang mills on a U.S. government list of factories that use forced Uighur labor.

Eleven Chinese entities were newly added to the list compiled by the Department of Commerce, including the Changji mill belonging to the textiles and apparel giant. Esquel clients over the years include a long list of marquee names, from Ralph Lauren to Brooks Brothers, Banana Republic, Fred Perry and more.

An open letter penned by Esquel chief executive officer John Cheh to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross denied any exploitation of workers and requested that its mill be removed from the list immediately.

“Let me be clear: Esquel does not use forced labor, and we never will use forced labor. We absolutely and categorically oppose forced labor. It is abhorrent and completely antithetical to Esquel’s principles and business practices,” it read.

Xinjiang is an autonomous far western region of China home to many Muslim Uighurs, as opposed to the majority Han Chinese throughout the rest of the country, and has witnessed substantial ethnic-based conflict. Over the years there has been mounting evidence from multiple nongovernmental organizations that there are ongoing human rights abuses occurring in the region, including mass detainment camps and forced labor programs in an effort to bring the population in line with the Chinese Communist Party ideology.

In May, five key fashion trade groups — the American Apparel and Footwear Association; the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America; the National Retail Federation; the Retail Industry Leaders Association, and the United States Fashion Industry Association — called upon the U.S. government to develop a “collective approach” to understand and address the problem of forced labor in Xinjiang.

Companies including Nike, Adidas, Gap, and Abercrombie & Fitch have also been implicated via their suppliers and sub-suppliers as using forced Uighur labor.

Cheh went on to say that no U.S. government agency had approached Esquel prior to the inclusion of Changji on the list and the company, and had it been consulted, it would have been happy to clarify its practices.

As proof, it said that its pay was two to three times the area’s minimum wage, that it did not receive government subsidies to hire Uighur workers — a known method of placement for forced government labor programs — and that most of its employee hires came from internal referrals, job notice boards and online web sites.

It also pointed to a May 2019 independent audit by the firm Elevate, in which the Changji mill received a score above 85, indicating good working conditions.

The company, which has been operating in Xinjiang for 25 years, had 1,343 employees there at the end of last year, of which 420 were Uighur employees, it said. The letter added that 58 had been with the firm for over 10 years, of which 16 have stayed for over 20 years, attributing it to an attractive work environment.

 

 

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