What if I were to trace the origins of the threads that make my clothing? Would the source be certain? Could the brands assure that each worker in the process of production has been guaranteed their basic rights and dignity? It is imperative that we be conscious of our roles as consumers and that includes buying apparel from brands and companies that exceed our expectations. So what is in our closets and what stories do our global threads tell within our local context?
85% of the world’s cotton is said to be produced in China. And the most essential piece to cotton production in China is the Uyghur people handling the raw cotton. But they are also in textile factories, in both contexts being forced into labor and eerie re-education camps that assimilate their Muslim majority into forgetting their history and origin, while dissuading them of their faith, language, and freedom.
This is the story many garments that contain this cotton are telling around the world, and the reckoning seems to be on the brink. The U.S. and Canada have claimed its genocide according to the UN’s definition while the Chinese market and its textile industry thrives and grows on the back of this intentionally forced labor and modern slavery, denying any injustice on all fronts. Skeptics may scoff at the hypocrisy of the US’s statement, but the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region China, or East Turkestan, are in dire need of all the solidarity possible. China is strong, and so is their textile and fashion market, so as we see many companies rescind their boycotts or public statements against the cotton coming out of China, the historically complicit organizations like Nike and H&M help the Uyghur cause as they defy the Chinese market intimidation tactics.
And when it comes to global apparel, it is quite shocking that the Parquet National Antiterroriste (PNAT)– or French National Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor’s Office– has opened up an investigation into Spain’s Inditex. The group consists of eight brands: Zara, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, Oysho, Zara Home, and Uterqüe. The allegations are “covering up crimes against humanity” and profiting from the forced labor of Uyghurs in China.
The investigation was inspired by the rigorous and diligent complaints filed back in April of this year by the anti-corruption association Sherpa, the collective Ethique sur l’étiquette (Ethics on the label), the Uyghur Institute of Europe (IODE), and a brave individual of the Muslim minority who was interned in the notorious and clandestine labor camp in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region China.
The associations claim the companies make no efforts to ensure that subcontractors are not involved in the persecution of Uyghurs. The allocations are founded in the well-founded and researched report called “Uyghurs for Sale”. The plaintiffs rely mainly on the published report from March 2020 by the Australian NGO ASPI (Australian Strategic Policy Institute) which warned about the presence of thousands of Uyghurs in camps in China where they are subjected to forced labor, especially in cotton fields. This complaint is part of a series of initiatives launched around the world by human rights defenders on behalf of the Uyghurs.
The alleged mistreatment of this mainly Muslim minority, and others in fact, which accounts for just under half of Xinjiang’s 25 million inhabitants, is the subject of an increasingly heated confrontation between the West and China.
And as mentioned before, several countries have officially deemed it a “genocide”, while NGOs have accused Beijing of forcing Uyghurs into political re-education centers and even sterilizing women from the community.
Beijing has denied all claims and assures the public that these are “vocational training centers” aimed at distancing Uyghurs from Islamism and separatism following a series of attacks that have been attributed to them.
Several textile companies, such as Japan’s Uniqlo, Sweden’s H&M, U.S.-based Nike, and Germany’s Adidas, pledged last year not to use cotton from Xinjiang. But this was not without a strong push back from China and its apparel market that holds a strong presence in the global industry, causing many groups to falter and rescind their public denouncement of the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs, such as the case of the Better Cotton Initiative. But despite the intimidation, China is not dividing groups and strategies to see Uyghurs receive the conditions and respect that they deserve.
The Coalition to End Forced Labour makes mention of the rescinded statement by the Better Cotton initiative, but they also commend and encourage the work that the non-profit is doing. In the Uyghur Region, the coalition fosters activism as a group of civil society organizations and trade unions united to end state-sponsored forced labor and other egregious human rights abuses against people from the Uyghur Region in China.
The Uyghurs current plight is a call to global solidarity and not just to boycott the Chinese market, but also to hold our local brands, companies, and governments that may slyly choose to turn a blind eye or use canny language to disguise the otherwise beneficial mistreatment of the Uyghur people, much like Zara and other fashion and apparel companies are surely doing.
How to begin to care and act in solidarity with the Uyghurs:
Uyghur Institute of Europe (IODE)
Written by Paul Holzman.