Human Rights In Fashion

Fast Fashion – A Disaster for Uyghur Human Rights

If you recently visited a mall and bought a nice pair of Nikes, shopped for home essentials at IKEA and did a little apparel shopping, then the chances are that you have brought products made using forced labour. One in every five  cotton articles is suspected to be made using cotton sourced from China’s Xinjiang region, where under-paid, ill-treated and abused Uyghur minority people are forced to work.

Who are the Uyghurs?


The Uyghurs are ethnic people mainly belonging to the westernmost part of China, neighbouring Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, Pakistan, Mongolia, India, and Afghanistan. The so-called “autonomous” region is home to people not belonging to the majority Han Chinese community. The area is China’s largest and best quality cotton producer. After the visit of President Xi Jinping in 2014, a Police State was created in Xinjiang to maintain the territory under its control.

In the last few years, media houses, scholars, and the United Nations exposed China for undermining the Uyghurs’ autonomy, culture, religion and fundamental human rights.

What Exactly is Happening?


Since Xinjiang accounts for about 80% of China’s cotton [6], the textile and apparel industries are in full bloom in the region. There is little alternative work to sustain the population, and forced labour in the garment industry thrives. Millions of Uyghurs are forced into internment camps which are re-education centres disguised as “vocational training centres”. Adult Uyghurs are first sent to re-education centres where communist Chinese values, mandarin, and submissive behaviour thrive and indoctrinated to completely forget their past, identities, religion, and language.


Map showing Locations of Suspected Internment Camps in Xinjiang[1]


To avoid any “separatist” sentiment, these Uyghurs are kept under 24-hour surveillance. There is a severe curtailment of freedom and autonomy to associate with family or practice religion are severely curtailed. For instance, the writing and use of terms which include “Allah” or “Quran” on their phones are prohibited. Other prohibited conducts include; wearing head coverings and growing beards. Although Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim minority – they are forcefully given pork and alcohol and anyone indulging in this “separatist: behaviour is severely punished. Contraceptives are also forcefully entered into Uyghur women to control the population, and there have also been reports of forced sterilization.

[1] Amy K. Lehr and Mariefaye Bechrakis. “Combatting Human Rights Abuses in Xinjiang.” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 16 December 2020, https://www.csis.org/features/combatting-human-rights-abuses-xinjiang. Accessed on 24 January 2022.

Many people have also mysteriously died inside the centres. Once the training is complete, these people are employed on negligible or no wage in mostly cotton-picking jobs or industries. People who were once wealthy businessmen, doctors, and scientists and had reputed jobs have now been subjugated to working for meagre wages. The Chinese Government claims that it is giving “employment” to Uyghurs to alleviate poverty in the region and curb “terrorism”.

Not only are the Uyghurs physically, mentally and sexually tortured, but they are manipulated to believe that the abuses are beneficial to their wellbeing and, therefore, should show gratitude to the Government. Through eyewitnesses and camp escapee accounts, it has been revealed that Uyghurs are taught that their old ways of living were the “lazy” ways. And that through the Chinese model, they are being “saved” from spiralling into extremism and poverty. For effective control, physical brutality is imployed as punishment for refusal to sing songs praising the Government and its policies This manipulative brain-washing sentiment is being inscribed in the minds of Uyghur children from a very young age since they are placed in orphanages or “care centres” where they are separated from their parents and taught the Chinese way of living.

How is the Apparel Industry Fueling this?


Control over the Xinjiang region is a ‘one stone, two birds’ scenario for China – it controls every action of the Uyghurs and earns billions of dollars of profit. About 44% of industries based in Xinjiang are textile and apparel industries which are given heavy subsidies by the Chinese Government. Little labour cost allows them to make huge profits on cotton, stained with Uyghur blood. This cotton then finds its way into global supply chains and amounts to more than 20% of the world’s cotton.

Fast fashion has increased the demand for such cotton, and to accrue more profits, corporations are always on the lookout for cheap raw materials. When news about the Uyghur human rights crisis first started to circulate, brands we know and often buy from, like H&M, Zara, Adidas, Walmart, Costco etcetera., were found to be using cotton and fabric sourced from Xinjiang.  On being asked why they were contributing to a human rights crisis, most brands pleaded ignorance, blamed their supply chains and gave affirmations of carrying out “investigations”.

The apparel industry is riddled with challenges of corruption, lack of transparency and adopting unethical practices. Audit companies are responsible for checking whether the product entering a supply chain is ethically sourced or not. These audits are often falsified. The case with China is that most industries have close ties with the Government, and thus it is effortless to hide illegal and forced labour behind closed doors and seek clearances.

In addition, to supply chain compliances, corporations themselves are required to carry out due diligence to stop and act against any incident of forced labour Corporations also must expose their supply chains if found guilty. Once established that cotton sourced from Xinjiang is tainted, corporations must assess the worksite themselves and seek information from the workers.


List of Things that can Lead to Detainment for the Uyghurs[1]


To avoid any “separatist” sentiment, these Uyghurs are kept under 24-hour surveillance.

There is a severe curtailment of freedom and autonomy to associate with family or practice
[1] Ali Çaksu, “Islamophobia, Chinese Style: Total Internment of Uyghur Muslims by the People’s Republic of China.” Islamophobia Studies Journal, Vol. 5, No. 2, Fall 2020.
religion are severely curtailed. For instance, the writing and use of terms which include “Allah” or “Quran” on their phones are prohibited. Other prohibited conducts include; wearing head coverings and growing beards. Although Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim minority – they are forcefully given pork and alcohol and anyone indulging in this “separatist: behaviour is severely punished. Contraceptives are also forcefully entered into Uyghur women to control the population, and there have also been reports of forced sterilization. Many people have also mysteriously died inside the centres. Once the training is complete, these people are employed on negligible or no wage in mostly cotton-picking jobs or industries. People who were once wealthy businessmen, doctors, and scientists and had reputed jobs have now been subjugated to working for meagre wages. The Chinese Government claims that it is giving “employment” to Uyghurs to alleviate poverty in the region and curb “terrorism”.

Not only are the Uyghurs physically, mentally and sexually tortured, but they are manipulated to believe that the abuses are beneficial to their wellbeing and, therefore, should show gratitude to the Government. Through eyewitnesses and camp escapee accounts, it has been revealed that Uyghurs are taught that their old ways of living were the “lazy” ways. And that through the Chinese model, they are being “saved” from spiralling into extremism and poverty. For effective control, physical brutality is imployed as punishment for refusal to sing songs praising the Government and its policies This manipulative brain-washing sentiment is being inscribed in the minds of Uyghur children from a very young age since they are placed in orphanages or “care centres” where they are separated from their parents and taught the Chinese way of living.

How is the Apparel Industry fueling this?


Control over the Xinjiang region is a ‘one stone, two birds’ scenario for China – it controls every action of the Uyghurs and earns billions of dollars of profit. About 44% of industries based in Xinjiang are textile and apparel industries which are given heavy subsidies by the Chinese Government. Little labour cost allows them to make huge profits on cotton, stained with Uyghur blood. This cotton then finds its way into global supply chains and amounts to more than 20% of the world’s cotton.

Fast fashion has increased the demand for such cotton, and to accrue more profits, corporations are always on the lookout for cheap raw materials. When news about the Uyghur human rights crisis first started to circulate, brands we know and often buy from, like H&M, Zara, Adidas, Walmart, Costco etcetera., were found to be using cotton and fabric sourced from Xinjiang.  On being asked why they were contributing to a human rights crisis, most brands pleaded ignorance, blamed their supply chains and gave affirmations of carrying out “investigations”.

The apparel industry is riddled with challenges of corruption, lack of transparency and adopting unethical practices. Audit companies are responsible for checking whether the product entering a supply chain is ethically sourced or not. These audits are often falsified. The case with China is that most industries have close ties with the Government, and thus it is effortless to hide illegal and forced labour behind closed doors and seek clearances.

In addition, to supply chain compliances, corporations themselves are required to carry out due diligence to stop and act against any incident of forced labour Corporations also must expose their supply chains if found guilty. Once established that cotton sourced from Xinjiang is tainted, corporations must assess the worksite themselves and seek information from the workers.


Image from a Garment Factory in Xinjiang[1]


Considering how secretive China has been about its affairs, it is illogical even to think that corporations would get the permit to talk to workers. For instance, United Nations fact-finding missions in Xinjiang were denied permission to enter the region. China has veto power in the U.N and close ties with another UNSC permanent member – Russia, and has been backed for its treatment of the Uyghurs by more than 30 countries.

If case investigation by corporations is not possible, they are required to change the source. Fast fashion will become ethical only if all companies stop using Xinjiang cotton.

Which Laws is China Violating?


[1] “China blasts US House bill, denies forced labor in Xinjiang.” Associated Press, 23 September 2020, https://apnews.com/article/forced-labor-race-and-ethnicity-global-trade-china-archive-eb8112a291398da559317dd1bff8c1df. Accessed on 24 January 2022.

The treatment of the Uyghurs is morally wrong, but it also violates numerous international human rights conventions. China is a signatory to almost all human rights conventions that protect the civil and political rights of people, their universal human rights declaration, their cultural and religious right, rights against torture, etcetera.

The USA has called the Uyghur human rights crisis a “genocide” France has also called Uyghur treatment “crimes against humanity”.

This human rights crisis fits the International Criminal Court’s definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity. China is not a Rome Statute signatory and has a disturbing reputation for disregarding international rulings like in the South China Sea Dispute. Also, international institutions do not have enforcement mechanisms and work only on cooperation.

Measures to End Uyghur?


The Fast Fashion industry is plagued with human rights violations, and the Uyghur crisis has revealed the gravity and impact of fast fashion. Corporations need to understand the gravity of the situation they contribute to and take firm steps to stop it.

China has denied all Uyghur mistreatment claims. However, when any corporation tries to distance itself from Xinjiang cotton, a billion people from China boycott that brand. Many also claim that the entire Uyghur crisis is a hoax and the product of “western propaganda” against China. To end human rights violations in Uyghur, Countries can impose sanctions that affect the Chinese Government on a diplomatic level. The imposition of visa sanctions and countries boycotting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is more likely to have an impact. Consumers must stop buying from multinational corporations and shift to locally and ethically sourced clothes individually. Purchasing ethically sourced garments is relatively expensive. It is, therefore, difficult for consumers accustomed to only buying cheap clothes to make the switch immediately. In today’s Instagram crazy world, popular influencers who are clueless or willfully ignorant about non-ethical practices in fast fashion make coupon codes to keep purchasing. On the brighter side, re-wearing clothes and thrifting are gaining popularity, and individuals are becoming more in tune with sustainability, sustainable practices and upcycling. Adopting practices that reduce consumption means production will also reduce on a large scale worldwide.

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