Nus Ghani is MP for Wealden and a member of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Select Committee.
Last week, the Government announced unprecedented action to save the rainforests. DEFRA lead on the announcement and the new legislation which will make it illegal for British businesses to use products that come from unlawful deforestation. This is hugely welcome.
Yet if the Government is able to take this legal position with UK businesses to tackle deforestation, there can be no reason why it can’t make it illegal for British firms to exploit slave labour in value chains too. And where better to focus than the supply chains in China – which is both the biggest source of pollution and slavery?
That’s why, in September, the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee announced a new inquiry into UK firms transparency and auditing of supply chains in China, with a specific focus on the link to the two million Uyghurs held on slave labour camps in the Xinjiang region.
Earlier this month we heard how H&M has led the way in investigating its supply chains, ensuring transparency and ending its relationships with suppliers in Xinjiang due to concerns about forced labour. This was in contrast to the disturbing evidence presented by other firms such as TikTok, Boohoo, and Nike.
But at least they turned up to explain their involvement in China – in contrast, Disney failed to respond to our invitation to give evidence and explain how they happened to film Mulan in the shadow of slave labour camps.
There is no doubt that in some circumstances supply chains can be long and complicated, but when it comes to Xinjaing the evidence is clear, with internment camps and re-education centres visible from satellite pictures. So it was curious when Volkswagen confidently declared it has no forced labour in its car plants in Xinjiang. One wonders how Volkswagen can be so sure?
As a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Uyghurs for Sale details, an estimated 80,000 Uyghurs have been transferred from Xinjiang to other parts of China to work in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 83 global brands in the technology, automotive and clothing sectors. The list includes brands like Apple, BMW, Dell, General Electric, General Motors, Google, Land Rover, Microsoft, Panasonic – and yes, Volkswagen itself.
There is a specific issue around cotton, fabrics and fashion. More than 80 per cent of China’s cotton is grown in the Uyghur Region, approaching almost 20 percent of global production, according to the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region. This is a group of over 50 human rights organisations including Anti-Slavery International and Human Rights Watch, endorsed by over 280 other groups from more than 35 countries. Consequently, major apparel products sold by high-street brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch, Adidas, Calvin Klein, Gap, Marks and Spencer, Nike, Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Victoria’s Secret, and Zara could have been produced by slave labour.
As Omer Kanat, Executive Director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, says: “Given that so much cotton is sourced from the Uyghur region, the fashion industry is uniquely culpable for forced labour, and by extension, systematic policies meant to destroy the Uyghur identity.”
Brands like Nike, Zara, and Uniqlo, he adds, are not only “enabling forced Uyghur labour, they’re also supporting an entire system of genocidal repression. Who is picking the cotton and stitching the clothes that western consumers are wearing every day? Uyghurs. Drawn directly from mass internment camps.”
Under Britain’s Modern Slavery Act, companies have a legal responsibility to be transparent about slavery in supply chains. Yet it is curious that at a time when businesses go to great lengths to ensure brand management and corporate social responsibility, such efforts seem to come to a halt at the borders of China when it comes to human rights.
Just to bring the issue home, Merdan Ghappar used to model for the Chinese online retailer Taobao. Today he is handcuffed to a metal bedframe in detention in China’s western Xinjiang region, one of at least a million – perhaps as many as three million – Uyghurs and other Muslims held in a network of prison camps. Perhaps those who walk the fashion catwalks of the western world today will at least remember him – and question whether they should be promoting products made by his fellow prisoners?
In September the United States took the unprecedented step of banning exports from five entities in the Xinjiang and Anhui provinces of China, including garments, cotton, computer parts, and hair products. As Kenneth Cuccinelli, the Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary said, “These extraordinary human rights violations demand an extraordinary response. This is modern-day slavery.”
Leaked high-level Chinese government documents last year speak of “absolutely no mercy”. China’s state media has declared that the aim in this crackdown on the Uyghurs is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins.” As the Washington Post put it in an editorial, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.”
A new independent tribunal, chaired by the man who prosecuted Slobodan Milosevic, British barrister Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, is now investigating whether the atrocities against the Uyghurs constitute genocide. If they do, high-street brands may be complicit in this crime.
Volkswagen might want to recall its history. It should not be lost on them that Marie van de Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and others in the Jewish community, are increasingly drawing direct comparisons with the Holocaust. In a letter to the Chinese ambassador in London, she said that nobody could see the evidence and fail to note what she describes as:
“…similarities between what is alleged to be happening in the People’s Republic of China today and what happened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago: People being forcibly loaded on to trains; beards of religious men being trimmed; women being sterilised; and the grim spectre of concentration camps.”
Her letter was preceded by the decision by the Jewish News to highlight the discovery of 13 tonnes of Uyghur hair – with “Nazi resonance” – on the frontpage of the newspaper. Indeed, it is significant that the Jewish News is the only British newspaper to have highlighted the plight of the Uyghurs on their frontpage, and has done so twice.
Just as we are asked about our legacy on the rainforests, so we will also have to explain how we responded to a modern day, technologically-advanced destruction of the Uyghur. We need a national effort – on the left and right – to wake up to the fact that as important as the rainforests are, slavery threatens the existence of entire people. And we need the Government to act as decisively, and legislate stop British businesses using or abusing slavery in supply chains just as it has to stop unlawful deforestation.