Over the past few years, the Chinese communist regime has received compelling allegations that hundreds of millions of Uighur citizens in the semi-autonomous region of Xinjiang are being fiercely persecuted for their religious beliefs.
Allegations indicate that the victims of this persecution are locked up in “re-education camps” where they are violently tortured, exploited for labor, and killed. In addition, women are frequently raped, forced to have abortions, and forcibly separated from their children.
Other prisoners of conscience, such as practitioners of the Falun Gong spiritual discipline, are also persecuted and imprisoned in forced labor camps where they are forced to work, often to death.
The denunciations have gained international relevance, and many industries linked to the exploitation of Uighur workers are beginning to take action and disengage their production from that region. But unfortunately, others continue to feed the perverse exploitation but suffer, in part, the international condemnation of human rights organizations and governments that limit the importation of these products.
Cotton and its textile derivatives are one of the primary industries linked to Uighur exploitation. More than 80% of the cotton grown in China comes from Xinjiang, accounting for about one-fifth of the cotton produced worldwide.
A coalition of nearly 200 human rights groups launched a worldwide campaign in 2020 demanding that companies stop profiting from the low costs involved in producing Uighur slaves from Xinjiang.
“Almost every major apparel brand and retailer selling cotton products is potentially implicated,” the Coalition stated when it launched the initiative. “Right now, there is near certainty that any brand sourcing apparel, textiles, yarn or cotton from the Uighur Region is profiting from human rights violations, including forced labour, both in the Uighur Region and more broadly throughout China.”
Consequently, many large Western firms have stopped producing in China, and others, such as the well-known Swedish brand H&M, had to close most of its successful clothing stores located in mainland China following terrible harassment by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after it announced in 2021 that it was refusing to use Xinjiang cotton on the grounds of human rights abuses.
The world markets low-priced clothes at the cost of Uighur blood
With seasonal changes, the textile industry is usually reactivated, when people choose to renew their wardrobes according to the new fashions and temperatures brought by winter or summer, as the case may be.
In June, Europe officially leaves the winter cold behind and dresses for summer. The Chinese brand SHEIN, focused on European and American styles, has gradually managed to lead the market based on the concept of fashion at the lowest price.
However, more and more people are trying to expose what is behind these low prices, and many responsible consumers are trying to avoid consuming their products. Even some officials and politicians have managed to impose regulations to discourage the textile trade linked to labor exploitation, although it is a difficult fight to carry on due to the large economic interests at stake.
During the first day of the discount season, French MEP Raphaël Glucksmann posted a video on his social networks which read:
“Behind SHEIN’s ten-euro dresses and two-euro T-shirts is a massive system of exploitation. Twelve hours of work a day, only one day off a month, no employment contract or work insurance, and extremely bad work safety conditions.”
Glucksman pointed out that the exploitative system allows SHEIN to sell at low prices in Europe and tried to explain why society still consumes this merchandise. Many are unaware that the products purchased are thanks to the sweat and blood of Uighur enslaved people.
Glucksman argued: “Because the brand lies, the website, with false declarations and false certificates, has deceived the market surveillance mechanism”.
Former President Trump crusaded against Uighur labor exploitation
During his term in office, former President Trump was one of the first to implement measures that forced importers and international firms to review their supply chains to try to prevent the marketing of products manufactured, in whole or in part, in clandestine sweatshops in Xinjiang.
The Biden administration deepened some of the measures initially adopted by Trump. For example, on Jan. 13, 2021, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) authority announced an outright ban on all products made from cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang province, arguing that these are the result of forced labor by Uighurs persecuted by the Chinese Communist regime.
A day before the Biden administration’s announcement, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also announced that his government would severely fine UK companies whose production chain is linked to the forced labor of Uighurs.
Recent measures that could end Europe’s complicity
At the same time, the European Parliament announced in mid-June this year the adoption of two landmark human rights resolutions that could directly affect sectors of the textile industry that profit from the labor exploitation of prisoners of conscience.
The first resolution calls for a series of new trade instruments aimed at banning the import into the European Union (EU) market of all goods produced with forced labor.
The second resolution focuses on human rights in the semi-autonomous region of Xinjiang and the research files warning about the persecution and exploitation of the Uighurs. Accordingly, it again calls for a trade instrument to ban the import of goods, mainly textiles, produced with forced labor in the region.
If both resolutions are properly implemented, it will be possible to require that products manufactured and shipped by forced labor enter and leave the European market.
Heidi Hautala MEP, Vice-President of the European Parliament, commented on the new resolutions:
“Europeans demand a trade policy in line with EU values, human dignity and social rights. Under pressure from the Parliament, the Council and the Commission had to withdraw their support for the investment agreement with China. And today, the European Parliament is signaling that it no longer wants the EU to be complicit with the Chinese totalitarian regime, which has been perpetuating a crime against humanity in the Xinjiang province for five years.”
She added: “The EU is the second largest market for Chinese exports. By banning the import of forced labor products, we will finally act against exploitation and protect workers in China and Europe.”
It is clear that none of these measures have been successful enough to immediately break the regime’s system of persecution and exploitation of millions of citizens. However, the chain effect generated by these control policies allows the situation to be exposed and made visible. As a result, more governments are encouraged to impose such measures, and consumers are more responsible and conscientious when choosing where to spend their money.