In March 2020 Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a groundbreaking report that revealed that many high street clothing brands potentially have people subject to forced labour in their supply chains. This report focussed on China and exposed how people from the Uyghur minority population in China are regularly transported to work around China in coercive and restrictive conditions.
This was incredibly shocking as it showed that there is a very real risk that products that we buy from shops here in the UK have been made by workers who were being exploited. What is more, it suggests that those brands have actually benefitted from forced labour as those workers are not properly paid and/or not able to leave their work and so it becomes cheaper to produce products and so profits are increased. It’s shocking to think that as consumers we could be paying lower prices precisely because Uyghur workers are being exploited.
We wrote to some of the companies that were identified by the ASPI and asked them to show what they were doing to ensure there is no forced labour in their supply chains.
How can companies ensure their supply chains are free from forced labour?
International investigations have exposed that the Chinese government’s policy of forced labour is so widespread within the Xinjiang region of China that there is a significant risk of forced labour at virtually any workplace. So, the first thing that we want to see from a company’s response or forced labour policy is:
- Are any of their factories located in Xinjiang?
As it is impossible to prove that any workplace in Xinjiang is free of forced labour, no brand with factories in Xinjiang can assert that it has ethical production processes.
The second thing we are wanting to see from companies is how they ensure that their factories are free from forced labour throughout China.
The Chinese government is known to forcibly transfer Uyghurs from the Xinjiang region to work in factories in other regions of China where they are working in conditions that indicate forced labour. Reports in 2020 revealed that at least 80,000 Uyghur people had been transferred to factories where they cannot leave, are under round the clock surveillance and are given ‘ideological training’ to abandon their religion and culture. If a company seeks to reassure by stating that its factories are outside of Xinjiang, we also need to know:
- What processes are in place to ensure that forced labour is not being used in the factories that manufacture their products? This could include audits, assessments, accreditation with fair cotton regulators etc
Finally, the third thing that we are looking for in the company responses is how they audit lower levels of their supply chain.
Clothing brands usually do not own the factories that produce their products: they develop partnerships with factories that are contracted to manufacture products for the short, medium or long term. These are tier 1 suppliers.
But what about the materials and components that are used to manufacture the end products? The cotton supply chain includes textiles that have been created from raw harvested cotton. These textiles get produced in other factories by other, often smaller, companies and shipped to large factories for clothing manufacture. These smaller textile companies are tier 2 suppliers. So thirdly, we are looking for a company’s response to address the question:
- What are their processes for assessing the location of their tier 2 suppliers and ensuring that forced labour is not being used in the manufacturing process?
Some companies may well audit supplies from further down their supply chain than tier 2. However, accountability becomes more difficult and likely less accurate, especially in tiers 3 and below. That is why we are focussing on tier 1 and 2 suppliers for each of the companies that we contacted. With the Chinese administration’s hostility to allegations of forced labour, it would be nearly impossible for any company to audit their entire supply chain in China with confidence.
This was one of the brands that were revealed to have been sourcing from a factory that had Uyghur labourers who had been transported to work in the factory in 2017 and 2018. Victoria’s Secret parent company stopped sourcing from that factory in January 2020 due to the supplier’s Xinjiang links and that (as of January 2021) it no longer sources any cotton from China.1 What is more, they have committed to
‘prohibit the sourcing of cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until respective governments end the practice of forced labor, including child labor, in the cotton sector. Until the elimination of these practices is independently verified, we will maintain this commitment and will collaborate with other stakeholders to raise awareness of this very serious concern and advocate for its elimination.’2
This is an encouraging story of a brand confronting the risk of forced labour within their supply chain and taking effective action. Whilst there is a risk of forced or exploitative labour wherever cotton is sourced, the risk is so high in China that they have committed to not source cotton ‘until the elimination of these practices is independently verified.’
After being identified as having had forced labour within their supply chain, ASOS conducted a review of all their suppliers to investigate if there was any evidence of forced labour. As a result, they ceased working with two factories that had links with the Xinjiang region.
Going forward they have committed to ensuring that by 2030 all of their own-brand product will have supply chains mapped down to the raw materials with a priority on high-risk materials such as cotton. This is very difficult to accomplish as supply chains are often incredibly complicated and constantly changing for different products and at different times. However, without this knowledge, no company can guarantee that there is no forced labour in their supply chains as they simply do not know what their supply chain contains! The ambition to fully map their supply chains is a market-leading ambition and we hope that it will encourage other companies to pursue such rigorous and extensive mapping.
North Face was another company that was named in the ASPI report as having potentially benefitted from forced labour in China. However, North Face was later removed from the report as they were able to show that had stopped sourcing from that factory before the Uyghur workers arrived. This is a positive revelation as it means that North Face products may not have been manufactured using forced labour.
North Face’s parent company VF Corporation has made public a map of all of their Tier 1 suppliers and most of their tier 2 suppliers in 2021. The map shows that none are within the Xinjiang region of China but there are 87 suppliers within the rest of China.
VF Corporation has a robust modern slavery stance and has released a forced labour public statement. They have taken steps such as mapping supply chains including some tier 3 and 4 suppliers, working to increase traceability and state that ‘We have ended, and will continue to end, business relationships with any company that refuses to remediate human rights violations when they occur.’ They make no mention of the unique risk of forced labour in China but it could be because they have retail business interests in the country and do not want to risk angering Chinese authorities.
A Long Way To Go
There were also some brands that replied but didn’t address our concerns about forced labour. We are going to go back to these companies and ask them for clarification or more information about what they are doing. It might be that they have taken extensive steps and have thorough processes in place but that they have not told us.
We have been asking our supporters to send emails that we have drafted to brands as the more people that they hear from the more likely they are to take this issue seriously. For these companies who we want to hear back from again, we have re-written the emails that we are sending to them to focus on the areas where their responses have been insufficient. If you want to send an email to any of these brands you can click here.
Nike provided only the briefest of responses and directed our supporters’ enquiries to the company’s Modern Slavery Transparency Report 2021. This statement identifies China as among their top ten supplier countries but has nothing to say on remedial action in their China supply chain.
However, there is a separate statement on Nike’s website that does address Xingjiang and Nike’s supply chain. Nike Statement on Xinjiang | Nike Purpose. This states that Nike “has strengthened it’s audit protocols” and that “ongoing diligence has not found evidence of employment of Uyghurs, or other ethnic minorities from XUAR, elsewhere in our supply chain”.
This statement alone is inadequate in that it does not address the nature of the strengthened audit processes, the number of physical inspections carried out and whether or not the audits or other measures led to any changed practice on the part of either Nike or their tier one suppliers in China.
With respect to the traceability of raw materials (which are likely to have at least some exposure to production in the Xinjiang region), Nike states that there is work in progress. (“We are working closely with our suppliers, industry associations, brands and other stakeholders to pilot traceability approaches ….”).
Nike’s response so far falls short and we will follow up with the company for further information.
After contacting Sainsbury’s this was the reply that we received:
I would like to assure you that we do not source any cotton from Xinjiang and haven’t for a number of years.
Our commitment to 100% sustainable cotton precludes this as none of our approved sustainable cotton standards operate in Xinjiang.
We do not have any tier 1 suppliers across food, clothing, general merchandise or our good not for resale suppliers based in Xinjiang and we have worked closely with all our suppliers this year to ensure that they are not sourcing ingredients or raw materials from the region.
Following UK government guidance issued in January this year we have worked with suppliers to find alternative sources of ingredients where they were sourcing from Xinjiang and continue to work with many industry group and forums to ensure we keep up to date with developments in the region.
This is in part an encouraging response as it shows that they are aware of the risk of exposure to forced labour within the cotton manufacturing in Xinjiang. They are taking steps to work with not just their tier 1 suppliers but their lower supply chain to ensure that materials are not sourced from Xinjiang.
However, in this response, all of their work is focussed solely on the Xinjiang region and not on the reality of Uyghur workers being transported to work in factories throughout China. In Sainsbury’s Modern Slavery Statement 2020 they include all of China in their work and so we will be contacting them for clarification as to the nature of the work they are doing to remove the risk of forced labour in the supply chain.
After we reached out to Sketchers they replied directing us to look at the social responsibility page on their website.3 On that page they state that:
We are deeply concerned by reports of forced labor and the treatment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region. The Supplier Code of Conduct standards strictly prohibit all forms of forced labor. We take a variety of proactive measures to ensure that our factories and their suppliers do not used forced labor. These include both conducting on-going scheduled and unscheduled audits with the factories we utilize in Asia to ensure there are no violations to our Supplier Code of Conduct and requiring our factories to certify to us in writing that neither they nor their suppliers use forced labor. Through these audits initiated internally, we have not encountered any incidents of forced labor. If we were to encounter any violations, the factories are required to implement a Corrective Action Plan, and are audited again to ensure compliance. As always, Skechers will continue its aggressive enforcement of is Supplier Code of Conduct with the factories we utilize.4
Sketchers also have a ‘Uyghur Code of Conduct’ that is linked to on that page.5 This statement details the work that Skechers has done to step up their standards for auditing and the codes of conduct that factories must agree to. The factory that was identified as having received transported Uyghur workers has received announced and unannounced audits since and they have found no evidence of forced or coercive labour. Sketchers reiterate that neither they nor this factory has found evidence of forced labour. This then raises the question as to whether Sketchers view the finding of forced labour at this factory in the ‘Uyghurs for sale’ report to be false.
To reduce the risk of forced labour in the rest of their supply chain, Sketchers audit how their manufacturers are conforming to their Supplier Code of Conduct. This allows them to analyse their supply chain to search for evidence of forced labour. This work is encouraging and shows that Sketchers are taking steps to ensure that they manufacture as responsibly as possible in China.
We will be contacting Sketchers again to ask whether they believe there was ever forced labour in their factory that was identified in the ‘Uyghurs for Sale’ report.
In 2020 Calvin Klein was found to have potentially benefitted from the labour of Uyghurs who had been transported to work in wider China. We wrote to Calvin Klein about our concerns and they responded by directing us to their parent company’s (PVH Corp) slavery and human trafficking statement.6 This page does contain information about their corporate responsibility work to ‘advance sustainable development and support human rights’. This page does not contain a single reference to China, Uyghur, Xinjiang or any mention of the unique risk of human rights abuses within their manufacturing in China. This may be because they do not want to jeopardise their businesses that operate within China as a number of boycotts within China have recently targeted companies that make statements about potential forced labour in China.
PVH has released a list of their suppliers and factories (last updated June 2021). This list shows that at the time they were sourcing from 175 factories within China, all outside of the Xinjiang region. This is encouraging as the risk of forced labour is higher within the Xinjiang region, however, we know that manufacturing in other regions of China does not remove the risk of forced labour.
PVH’s slavery and human trafficking statement explains that they use tools such as audits, accountability and training and verification of supply chains to reduce the risk of forced labour. This is an excellent sign and shows that they take the risk seriously and are taking action to reduce it as far as possible.
Despite the positive signs, it is not clear from their statement that they acknowledge the unique environment of working in China and the risks that this poses. We have emailed Calvin Klein to ask them to comment specifically on how they ensure that their factories and supply chains within China do not contain forced labour from Uyghur transported outside of Xinjiang.
Forced labour in fashion: still a way to go
It is encouraging to see that many companies have worked to minimise the risk of forced labour and develop robust auditing processes. We will write to those companies that still have a way to go and report back to you what they say. JPIT is one of many charities and organisations drawing attention to forced labour in China and asking companies to ensure that they are not contributing to these human rights violations. Thank you to everyone who has supported this campaign so far. You can still send your own email to brands here.