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Apparel group urges US to lead multinational campaign against forced labour in Xinjiang

Robert Delaney
·4 min read

A group representing some of the largest US and international apparel companies has called on Washington to convince other countries to pressure China to end forced labour in its Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

An official of the American Apparel and Footwear Association - which represents The Gap, Versace, Jimmy Choo and other brands - said on Thursday that more countries must join diplomatic efforts to halt forced labour in the region.

"The United States has done nothing to bring Europe along, Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea," Nate Herman, the association's senior vice-president of policy, said on Thursday in an online discussion hosted by the US-China Business Council.

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Herman added that the US needed to "try and bring those other countries, bringing the UN, bringing other international institutions, into this discussion".

Some of the association's members, such as PVH Corp - owner of the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands - have faced criticism that their products may have involved forced labour from Xinjiang.

PVH announced last year that it added the area as a jurisdiction subject to its "restricted country policy", meaning that "we do not, and prohibit our licensees from, producing finished goods in Xinjiang".

"As part of our ongoing, long-term supply chain strategy, we have been communicating for the last six years that we are reducing our manufacturing, textile and cotton footprint in China and increasing our verticality in other manufacturing locations," PVH said.

Leading export sectors from China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Image: Centre for Strategic and International Studies alt=Leading export sectors from China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. Image: Centre for Strategic and International Studies

As US-China relations have deteriorated in recent years, China's treatment of the Uygurs, an ethnic Muslim minority based mostly in the region, has become one of the most contentious issues.

The United Nations, among other institutions, has accused the Chinese government of holding some 1 million Uygurs and other ethnic Muslims in detention camps in the area. Earlier this summer, the US Treasury Department sanctioned senior Chinese officials and Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a quasi-government conglomerate controlled by Beijing, for their "connection to serious human rights abuse" in Xinjiang.

The complexity of the supply chain from cotton, fabric or other inputs to finished product makes it difficult for companies to determine whether products they make in China involve forced labour in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region (XUAR). Many manufacturers on China's east coast or elsewhere in the country have production facilities in the region.

China is the world's largest producer of cotton yarn, and most of the product "likely predominantly uses cotton from the XUAR, but may also contain imported yarn to achieve the desired quality", according to a July report by Amy Lehr, director and senior fellow at the Human Rights Initiative at the Washington-based think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

China has repeatedly denied any mistreatment of Uygurs in what it calls vocational training centres, which it says have been successful in combating extremism and violence.

The Xinjiang sanctions and ban on imports of goods produced with forced labour, taken together, gives the US the strongest stance on the issue. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went so far as to call China's treatment of Uygurs "the stain of the century".

However, analysts including Lehr agree that more needs to be done in concert with US allies.

The US "hasn't been consistent and it hasn't made our traditional allies feel secure and coming out as well, which they know is going to be really high risk if they do it," Lehr said in the online discussion on Thursday.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has hit back at allegations of Uygur mistreatment, characterising internment camps in Xinjiang as efforts to fight separatism and terrorism, rather than a matter of human rights or religion.

"It is obviously a very challenging issue for any government to engage on because China is very important and this is a priority for China," Lehr said. "And so, when governments do say something, they tend to face consequences."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.