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Cotton and Corporate Responsibility: Fighting Forced Labor in Xinjiang and Uzbekistan

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Cotton and Corporate Responsibility: Fighting Forced Labor in Xinjiang and Uzbekistan

There are considerable differences with regard to forced labor in Uzbekistan and Xinjiang, but there is an underlying corporate responsibility to not engage in human rights abuses.

Cotton and Corporate Responsibility: Fighting Forced Labor in Xinjiang and Uzbekistan

A worker gathers raw cotton at a cotton-growing area collective center in the city of Korla in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006.

Credit: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

Japanese retailers Muji and Uniqlo have come under criticism recently for sourcing cotton from Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has reportedly interned more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, including Kazakhs and Kyrgyz.

The Wall Street Journal reported back in May on a bevvy of companies whose supply chains run through Xinjiang. Various reports and testimonies indicate that Uyghurs and others released from camps are fed into the region’s factories. A number of the companies mentioned in the WSJ and subsequent reports have previously signed a pledge to not knowingly source cotton from Uzbekistan due to forced labor in the country’s cotton industry. A number of factors distinguish the cases of Uzbekistan and Xinjiang — not the least of which is the sheer scale and motivation of forced labor in Xinjiang — but the underlying corporate responsibility to not contribute to human rights abuses is a thread worth following.

Last month, Chairman of the Board of the Uyghur Human Rights Project Nury Turkel testified before the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China. “It is becoming increasingly hard to ignore the fact that goods manufactured in East Turkistan [the Uyghur term for the Xinjiang region] have a high likelihood of being produced with forced labor,” he said.

An early November Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) report noted that two Japanese retailers, Muji and Uniqlo, “raised eyebrows for spruiking ‘Xinjiang Cotton’ products.”

Muji, for example, launched a “Xinjiang Cotton Collection” on May 17 (as the ABC pointed out, the day after the WSJ report came out). Uniqlo, meanwhile, noted in a since-removed advertisement for a button-down that the product was “Made from Xinjiang Cotton, famous for its superb quality.”

Both companies responded to the ABC’s questions: Muji pointed to internal standards, including prohibitions on forced labor, and a planned internal investigation; Uniqlo stated that it “does not have any production partners located in the Xinjiang area.” Even while both companies mentioned Xinjiang in advertisements, there’s a motivation on the corporate level to distance the companies from allegations of forced labor.

Cotton is a labor-intensive crop. While mechanization has revolutionized cotton picking in much of the West, in countries where cotton is picked by hand, forced labor continues to be a problem. In Xinjiang, where raw cotton is also processed into yarn and cloth, as well as finished goods, the risk of forced labor exists at multiple steps in the creation of a product.

In Central Asia, Uzbekistan has been at the heart of a global campaign to stamp out the use of forced labor in its cotton sector. Under the Cotton Campaign’s Uzbek Cotton Pledge, more than 300 signatory companies have committed to “not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child and adult labor in its cotton sector.” 

Since the death of Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov, the government of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has engaged in a broad reform program. One of the most noticeable aspects of this reform push has been the opening of engagement with human rights activists focused on forced labor in the cotton sector. On November 1, the Cotton Campaign commented in a press release that the group’s engagement with the government has deepened positively. Earlier this year, Uzbekistan pushed for the lifting of the pledge and the boycott of Uzbek cotton, citing progress in eradicating forced child labor and increased government activity to prevent and punish forced adult labor.

This has not happened yet, with activists noting that the pledge promises to stay in place until forced labor is ended. Nevertheless, the market pressure generated by the pledge has had considerable impact.

Among the companies cited by the May WSJ report as having supply chains that run through Xinjiang, there are several that have signed on to the Uzbek Cotton Pledge including Adidas, H & M, Gap Inc., and Uniqlo. While the pledge is narrowly targeted at Uzbek cotton, the concept of corporate responsibility that underlines the pledge’s commitments could arguably be extended to China and Xinjiang.

There are considerable differences however, between cases of forced labor in Uzbekistan and Xinjiang.

In a report last month for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Amy K. Lehr and Mariefaye Bechrakis note that “Forced labor in Xinjiang does not resemble the most common pattern of forced labor—a workforce that is in bondage due to recruitment fees. Nor is it equivalent to the seasonal use of forced labor for cotton harvesting by former Soviet Republics, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.”

In response to questions from The Diplomat, Lehr, director of CSIS’s Human Rights Initiative, said that “forced labor in Xinjiang is part of a much wider system of repression and abuse against religious minorities that may rise to the level of crimes against humanity.” Furthermore, “government organized forced labor in Xinjiang occurs not only in cotton production, but in factories, so it affects more parts of the supply chain.”

Lehr and Bechrakis in their report cite the cotton pledge as having had an impact on the Uzbek government, but comment that a “similar step for Xinjiang cotton would undoubtedly prove challenging for the industry.

Cotton is a big industry in Uzbekistan. Agriculture accounts for about 17.3 percent of GDP, with cotton and grain the primary crops. But Uzbekistan is just one market source for retailers. China is a much larger producer. It would be more difficult to replace Chinese cotton and goods with other sources. According to a November 2019 report on the world cotton market from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, at present India is estimated to be the world’s top producer of cotton, accounting for nearly a quarter of the global market. China is not far behind, at around 22 percent. Uzbekistan falls behind the United States, Brazil, Pakistan, and Turkey, producing around 2.4 percent of the world’s cotton.

Lehr and Bechrakis note that more than 80 percent of China’s cotton is produced in Xinjiang, with the logical implication that any cotton sourced from China is likely to contain cotton that originated in Xinjiang. 

The commercial difficulties, aside, Lehr and Bechrakis write that “the scale of forced labor in Xinjiang, and the role it plays in the wider repression of minorities, demands meaningful action.”

“There’s great value in the idea of companies committing to not knowingly source cotton from Xinjiang, and it would be consistent with their commitments to human rights,” Lehr told The Diplomat. “On a practical level, China is more challenging than the Uzbek case because China produces so much of the world’s yarn and apparel. Whether such a move would affect China’s policy in Xinjiang remains to be seen, and would need to be combined with other diplomatic and economic pressure, but it would certainly put companies on the right side of history.”