For many years, we as consumers have placed importance on our food and drink products coming from ethical, fair sources. Many consumers only buy free range eggs for example, as battery chickens are kept in cruel conditions which are widely objected to. Fairtrade products are common in supermarkets, a certification which fights for “workers’ rights, safer working conditions and fairer pay”. It is clear that we are conscious of where our produce comes from and want to ensure the best conditions for workers and animals in this sector. So, the question is, why has fashion been left so far behind in terms of demand for workers' rights?
Last year, a disturbing report by Amnesty International detailed crimes against humanity in the Xinjiang region of China against Uyghur Muslims and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities. The World Uyghur Congress reported that more than a million Uyghurs were rounded up by Chinese police and taken to “re-education’ camps in Xinjiang in 2017 alone”. These camps have been described as worse than prisons, with “mass arbitrary detention, torture, forced political indoctrination, and mass surveillance” as well as reports of systematic rape and sterilisation of Uyghur women. From these “re-education camps”, at least 80,000 Uyghurs were moved to work in factories in China between 2017 and 2019 alone. Accounts of the repressive regime describe forced labour in which Uyghurs are left with no choice but to work with “minimal pay, poor working conditions, a discriminatory work environment, and often continued restrictions on their freedom of movement under threat of further punishment”- Amnesty International.
Forced Labour in Garment Factories
Many of these people have been forced to work in garment factories. China is one of the world’s biggest exporters of cotton and, as reported by Know the Chain, around 84% of China’s cotton is produced in Xinjiang where forced labour of Uyghurs takes place. Chloe Cranston, the business and human rights manager at Anti-Slavery International, is quoted by Al Jazeera as saying that “almost the entire fashion industry is implicated in Uighur forced labour, through yarn or cotton sourcing, for example”. By tracking the supply chains and shipping routes, a report by Sheffield Hallam University demonstrated how there is a high risk of UK companies sourcing cotton from the Uyghur region.
Many fashion brands, fast fashion and luxury alike, have been implicated in sourcing fabric from forced labour in the Xinjiang region. Brands such as Zara, Victoria’s Secret, Fila, Tommy Hilfiger and Louis Vuitton have been found to be profiting from Uyghur labour in 2021 (saveuighur.org). Some brands have taken accountability for their links with forced labour, and committed to making changes. However, brands have faced backlash from the Chinese government threatening to disallow them from selling in the Chinese market, and some, such as H&M and Zara, have given in to pressure and removed their previously issued statements. Others have denied the claims altogether. As Sumedha Vemulakonda writes for Remake, these statements without any real action are “a type of greenwashing presented time and time over; fast fashion brands have indeed become notorious for reacting rather than reforming”. Businesses worldwide, especially in the fashion industry, are rarely held accountable for the human rights abuses that occur in their supply chains. “Companies instead hide behind opaque supply chains, vague corporate sustainability statements and ‘ethical’ branding” - Antislavery.org
Ending Forced Labour in the Fashion Industry
The way forward for the fashion industry to end its ties to forced labour and the abuse of Uyghur people is complicated. Cranston said, “this isn’t just about direct supply chain links, it’s about how the global apparels sector is helping prop up and facilitate the system of human rights abuses and forced labour”. There is a systemic lack of transparency throughout the fashion industry, which allows brands to shirk responsibility for the human rights violations further along their supply chains. Equally, an attitude of profit over people is rife in these large corporations, who do not necessarily want to make changes to their cheap, exploitative processes.
A report by the Houses of Parliament has stated;
“We found that many companies asserted that they have robust procedures for prohibiting human rights abuses while failing to undertake the necessary and basic due diligence procedures to know for certain that their supply chains are not implicated in slave labour or the abuse of minorities in China.”
However, consumers have the ability to apply pressure on brands to evaluate their supply chains and take action on this issue. This can be done by avoiding shopping at companies who are known to be complicit in Uyghur forced labour, and writing to brands express concerns. In 2020, the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour organised a call to action; “Brand Commitment to Exit the Uyghur Region”, which M&S were the first global company to sign. It is up to consumers and brands who are dedicated to ethical practices to put pressure on other companies to follow this example and commit to change. At Bond Morgan, we believe in fair and ethical production for workers, animals and the planet. We are committed to an ethical and transparent supply chain, with products made here in England, and ensure that our manufacturers share our values of fair working conditions. It is not only possible but imperative to push for safe, fair and ethical working conditions within the fashion industry worldwide.