Uighur people and forced labour: what responsibilities for the fashion industry

(by Chiara Mele)

1. Introduction: are human rights relevant for businesses?

Human Rights Treaties do not create legal obligations upon private entities, since States have to translate their norms within national legal systems and guarantee their execution. There are several tools at governments’ disposal to protect human rights: labour laws, anti-discrimination laws, health and security laws, environmental laws.

However, what happens if these legal instruments do not cover the full human rights spectrum, are ineffective or not in place? It can generate situations of risk, as for the Uighur case in China. Human rights violations in the Xinjiang region are well known for a while: Chinese social engineering policies have targeted Uighur ethnic-linguistic and religious minority, who are subject to systematic actions of cultural assimilation and internment in the so-called re-educational camps, followed by mass transfers in the regional factories and in other area [1]. On top of that, there is the involvement of national and international companies that profit from the work force of these people [2]. Therefore, human rights violations can have a relevant impact on private entities, because being in a globalized market economy - where what happens in a part of the world has an effect elsewhere - private companies that externalize part or the entire production and supply chain take advantage from the local State negligence or its violations.

The analysis below will examine the case of the Uighur people and the implications (and therefore responsibilities) for companies in the garment sector that have economic ties with China and are linked with what is happening on the region.

2. Human rights violations of the Uighur people: what is happening in China

In the Xijiang region,Uighur ethnic-linguistic and religious minority is the victim ofan assimilation and cultural annihilation campaign. In attempting to assimilate them, the Chinese government is erasing their culture and religion, eliminating their basic human rights at the same time. Those among them, who manage to escape abroad and denunce China actions, are threatened and intimidated (Cina, Amnesty International denuncia campagna di intimidazione contro gli uiguri all’estero).Practices impemented by China amount to sterilization campaigns, forced abortions and birth addressing the Uighur minority. Besides human rights violations pertaining their sexual and reproductive rights, there is the forced mass detention in the camps of political re-education in the Xinjiang region, where labour exploitation practices are implemented by the Chinese authorities. These practices have reached worrying levels to get the attention of the European Parliament, making a statement on the 30th June 2020 (Chair's statement on Chinese Communist Party campaign to suppress Uyghur birth-rates) in which it declared a cultural genocide.

The European Parliament was not the only one to take a stand, urging the Chinese Government to stop human rights violations against the Uighur people. A coalition of 190 trade unions and NGOs (End Uyghur Forced Labour) is putting pressure on the fashion industry for its responsibilities in the labour exploitation in the supra mentioned camps. As follows, it will be described the current situation of the Uighur people regarding the re-educational camps and the role played by fashion companies operating in China.

3. Background story: historical frame and context of reference

The Xinjiang is the most extended region of China, which after a brief time of indipendence in the ’40 went back under China control in 1949 and then it became an autonomous region. The presence in the region of the Turkish-speaking and Muslim (Sunni) minority reaches nearly 10 million over 19 million inhabitants, but the Xinjiang is the home for other minorities as well such as the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz, the Tartars, the Tajiks and the Uzbeks.

The area is rich in natural resources, especially oil and natural gases, therefore has been witnessing an intense immigration flow for economic and job-related reasons from the Han ethnic group, with the full support from the Chinese government. Nevertheless, the phenomenon has triggered conflicts and tensions since in parallel to the migratory flow of the Han, the Uighur minority began to suffer discrimination and marginalization by the authorities. Over time, an anti-Han and separatist sentiment has developed on the part of the Uighurs, which has resulted in violent demonstrations starting from the 90s onwards, escalating into an ethnic conflict.