On a number of levels, the fashion industry’s practices are far from perfect. From environmental issues to concerns regarding the well-being of employees, the global fashion industry often carries a poor reputation. Despite this, the fashion industry continues to thrive, as low prices allow consumers to constantly follow new trends and satisfy their shopping habits. Consumers find it easy to ignore the seemingly abstract problems affecting people on the other side of the globe. As a result of both consumers’ and producers’ apathy, the entire fashion industry is now complicit in the use of what is effectively modern slave labour.
Cotton and Forced Labour
Cotton is an extremely versatile crop, creating strong, soft, durable, water-absorbent, and breathable textiles. In fact, its versatility makes it the most desired and profitable non-food cash crop in the world. The potential for profit from cotton has a dark legacy – suffering and injustice created by the enslavement of Africans in the United States and parts of Latin America lasts to this day. Unfortunately, the use of forced labour in the industry is not a thing of the past, and is rampant in all textile production, specifically in the cotton harvest.
One of the world’s largest cotton producers is China; the Xinjiang province in western China is now the origin of 20% of the world’s raw cotton. The region, which relies on hand-picking rather than machine harvest, produces some of the world’s most high-quality, durable cotton. Relying on a hand-picking harvest while maintaining competitive prices requires a cheap workforce, which places vulnerable populations at risk of exploitation.
The Xinjiang province has come under fire in recent years, as news of the Chinese government’s brutal treatment of the Uyghurs, an ethnically Turkic, predominantly Muslim group that inhabits the region, has come to the public eye. The group has been historically discriminated against, and after protests in 2014, Xi Jinping’s administration took action to further subjugate and control the minority. Famously, the state set up several “reeducation camps” targeting “religious extremism,” in which over 1 million Uyghurs have been imprisoned, tortured, and indoctrinated. Outside of reeducation camps, the government keeps Uyghurs under constant surveillance, imprisoning them for even the slightest of offences.
In response to international pressure, the Chinese government reportedly shut down the reeducation camps, claiming that all who had attended had “graduated.” Many were moved from camps into prison through sham trials. An alternative mechanism now used to oppress the Uyghurs is labour transfers. Under Xi Jinping’s “war on poverty,” the government moves people from more rural areas to work in factories. Those targeted by labour transfers are separated from their families and homes to work in large factories and plantations, where they make less than half a living wage.
A recent report gives strong indication that labour transfer programs are being used to force Uyghurs into cotton harvesting. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XCPP), a state-owned economic and paramilitary corporation, is responsible for the region’s cotton production. The XCPP fields currently employ over half of a million Uyghurs, forced to work in fields through prison labour programs and labour transfers. Labour transfers have been utilized by the XCPP to move non-imprisoned Uyghurs into the fields, forcing them to work for less than half of a living wage. The government and XCPP justify the mass transfer of Uyghurs into fields using rhetoric claiming that Uyghurs are inherently lazy, and need to learn discipline through hard work.
Cotton harvest is not the only part of the supply chain that relies on the forced labour of Uyghur Muslims. Under the same labour transfer programs, Uyghur prisoners and non-prisoners alike are forced to work in factories in the Xinjiang region and outside of it. A 2020 report showed that 83 well-known companies including Nike, Adidas, Uniqlo, The North Face, Ralph Lauren, and Zara, are connected to factories that used forced labour of Uyghurs. Despite international attention on human rights violations in the region, the problem of forced labour has not been scaled down, but rather continues to grow as the Chinese government finds new ways to hide it. Notably, a number of factories producing PPE popped up in the region after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, indicating that the Chinese used Uyghurs as a fast and cheap labour force to fulfill demands created by the pandemic. Uyghur labour is used as an effective tool of the fashion industry to constantly adapt to new trends and changing demands of consumers.
International actors have acted to address the rise of forced labour in the Xinjiang province. On September 22 the US House of Representatives passed Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, banning the import of products from the Xinjiang province. The house reintroduced the bill last month, modifying it to allow further sanctions on imports from China. In January, the US banned all cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang. Canada, Britain, and The EU have both followed suit in introducing similar legislation. Similarly, several companies, including Patagonia and H&M, vowed to move their production out of Xinjiang province, which has been met with significant backlash from the Chinese government.
While actions like these are a start, enforcing them is virtually impossible. China has responded to the bans of Xinjiang products by imposing sanctions on its Western trade partners. Furthermore, supply chains are very difficult to trace, as Chinese authority is intentionally opaque regarding the issue. Large companies are often unaware of their own supply chains, as raw materials and factory materials can trade hands several times before being exported to global markets. In addition to being difficult to enforce, the blanket ban on cotton and factory goods is a huge blow to the market. It is estimated the goods from Xinjiang represent over 1.5 billion garments imported into the US annually, which translates to about $20 billion in retail sales.
What can you do?
While making a meaningful change to the situation in Xinjiang is contingent on corporations making their supply chains more traceable and diversified, there are some things that the individual consumer can do. Purchasing ethically sourced garments isn’t an option for everyone, due to the often-restrictive cost. The first action to take is to educate oneself on what they are buying. There are a number of websites that can provide quick and basic information on different brands’ ethical and environmental impacts.
Another solution is to purchase clothes second-hand. Especially in urban areas, there is an abundance of second-hand clothing, which is generally cheaper than new clothing and reduces waste. Thirdly, one could simply consume less: by choosing to purchase a few, well-made garments instead of large quantities of cheaper goods, one can support ethical brands, reduce waste, and spend less overall on clothing. The consumer doesn’t have much power to change the system, but we can put pressure on companies to clean up their supply chains and protect human rights.
Edited by Gabriela McGuinty
Sage is a third-year student at McGill pursuing a double major in International Development and Political Science. As a writer for Catalyst, she is particularly interested in global supply chains and womens’ education.