WASHINGTON - More than a hundred international brands are "at risk" of selling cotton products related to Uyghur forced labor in China's Xinjiang region because of the way China's cotton industry "obscures" where the cotton actually comes from, according to a November 2021 report.
The report, Laundering Cotton, How Xinjiang Cotton Obscured In International Supply Chains, by the Helena Kennedy Center for International Justice at Sheffield Hallam University in England, found that five major Chinese yarn and fabric suppliers are using cotton from the Uyghur region. They export their semi-finished goods to international intermediary manufacturers that ship finished cotton products to international brands all over the world, including the U.S.
"Through this process, we were able to map likely supply chains that connect Xinjiang cotton to over a hundred international brands," the report states.
According to Laura Murphy, the lead author of the report and professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University in England, approximately 85% of China's cotton is produced in Xinjiang where local authorities are accused of imposing coercive labor on Uyghur people.
"They [local authorities] compel people - sometimes whole villages - to relinquish the leases to their land," Murphy told VOA. "And then they are considered 'surplus labor' by the government and are made more vulnerable to state-sponsored labor transfers."
Over the past four years, Beijing has been accused by some human rights organizations and countries of arbitrarily detaining more than 1 million Uyghurs and some other Turkic ethnic minorities in internment camps in Xinjiang, while coercing many others into forced labor.
According to the report, some of the facilities where cotton was processed were "located nearby or within a prison or camp."
China maintains the facilities are not internment camps but rather are "vocational training centers" where people learn new skills, and Beijing reiterates the country doesn't impose forced labor on Uyghurs and the labor arrangements are just "poverty alleviation" programs aimed at helping Uyghurs.
Earlier this year, the U.S. banned the import of all cotton products from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, citing Uyghur forced labor in cotton production, along with other commodities such as tomato products.
China's foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, insisted that Uyghur forced labor is "the biggest lie of the century" made by some Western countries, including the United States, to contain China's development.
"The United States both creates lies and takes egregious actions based on its lies to violate international trade rules and principles of market economy," Zhao said at a press briefing in January, adding Xinjiang affairs are China's internal affairs that no other country has the right or privilege to interfere with.
Using international trade and customs data from the last two years, the authors of the report found that 52% of China's exported cotton, yarn, and fabric is shipped to 53 intermediary manufacturers in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Mexico, where finished cotton-based apparel is supplied to 103 well-known global brands.
As a result, the report said, many of the international brands "may unwittingly be purchasing" goods made by Uyghur forced labor.
To ensure these brands are not supporting an economy of forced labor, Murphy said they need to trace the raw material sources through their supply chains.
"Complex supply chains can obscure the source of raw materials," Murphy told VOA. "Sometimes suppliers may hide their sourcing or combine different sources of cotton."
Some companies are actively investigating every one of their suppliers and sub-suppliers to do everything they can to ensure that no Xinjiang cotton makes it into their products, Murphy says. "Other companies would prefer simply not to know, though that's getting more difficult with international pressure, new research, and import legislation."
Murphy says there is no excuse for companies not knowing where their products come from. "If a supplier cannot tell a brand where they're sourcing from and provide convincing evidence of that sourcing, the brand should end the relationship with that supplier."