How T Shirts Fund Uyghur Oppression

4th November 2020

One of the more pernicious aspects of the oppression of the Uyghur in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) by the Chinese Communist Party is that they are forced, in effect, to pay for their own persecution. 

The mistreatment of minorities in XUAR involves a considerable expenditure of resources by the governing Chinese Communist Party (CCP), encompassing extensive surveillance, internment, imprisonment, indoctrination and forced relocation. The cost of that bureaucracy has been underwritten, in part, by profit extracted from the forced labour of detained members of those minority groups. 

The CCP operates a scheme, described as ‘Xinjiang Aid’, that allows participating Chinese companies to: (a) establish satellite factories inside the Uyghur Region and/or (b) hire transferred Uyghur workers within factories located outside Uyghur Region. It is understood that some of the largest global apparel and technology companies have taken part in this scheme. In addition, forced labour and coerced relocations also take place extensively outside the scope of this scheme.

We – that is, both consumers and businesses – are in effect complicit in this practice. Not willingly. The problem is that it is presently rather difficult, as a practical matter, to determine whether goods have been produced with the use of such forced labour or not. 

On Thursday, 5 November, the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee will be shining the spotlight on such forced labour in the UK value chains of fashion, retail and tech businesses. Nus Ghani MP will be leading the charge, and my colleague, Maajid Nawaz is one of those who will give evidence.

Forced labour pervades the network of relationships at every level in the industry: from direct relationships with suppliers and sub-suppliers, to the supply of raw materials, to associations with Chinese groups with subsidiaries located in XUAR. In addition, because workers from this region have been forcibly relocated to other parts of China under “forced labour transfer schemes”, suppliers in other parts of China may also be in the business of selling the products of forced labour. 

UK companies are not the cause of the oppression of minorities within China. They are however complicit in the funding of that persecution.

Profit is not the driver of the CCP’s campaign of persecution of minority groups in XUAR. However, the use of forced labour plays an important role offsetting the cost to the Chinese state of the mistreatment of those minorities. Particularly in relation to the production of Chinese cotton – 84% of which comes from XUAR – British companies with supply chains inevitably and inescapably play a part in the process by which Uyghur and other regional minorities are mistreated. 

The existence of a market for the product of the work of coerced regional minorities is the only or key driver for their mistreatment. The case against forced labour in XUAR does not turn on causation. Rather, it rests on a simple moral principle. Britain has long regarded it as improper to permit profit from the forced labour of imprisoned people. 

It might be argued that, in a competitive global marketplace, British companies have no choice but to source goods and materials from China. If they are penalised for doing so, they will suffer a competitive disadvantage. 

A similar argument was made in the 19th century in relation to slavery: which also involved coercion of labour and a denial of personal autonomy. There are certain principles which define a nation, and fierce and effective opposition to slavery and other forms forced labour is one of them.  Britain took the global lead in the 19th century in suppressing the Atlantic Slave Trade. That campaign was one of this nation’s proudest achievements. In the 21st century, it is appropriate that Britain take similar measures to address a contemporary counterpart. 

It is essential that the government establishes a robust framework that will create a level regulatory playing field for UK businesses, to ensure that businesses which are determined to ensure that forced labour is eliminated from their supply are not outcompeted by those who are unperturbed.

Measures to address the use of forced labour in supply chains are a focus of international legislative action in the most significant jurisdictions. A multijurisdictional approach to this problem, establishing global best practice, will address the problem of competitive disadvantage, and will prevent companies from engaging in regulatory arbitrage in order to circumvent national controls. The UK should therefore seek to align the UK’s approach with international efforts. 

A significant problem which UK companies face is that, as a result of the high level of control over information exercised by the CCP, the opacity of data relating to supply chains, and the interconnected nature of those supply chains, neither due diligence nor social audits are capable of determining with certainty whether their suppliers make direct or indirect use of forced labour.  

Section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 addresses the problem of Transparency in Supply Chains (TISC) by imposing reporting obligation on UK companies with a revenue of over £36 million per year. However, the section mandates no steps which must be taken to prevent harm in those companies’ supply chains. In the absence of such a positive duty, reinforced by sanctions, the Modern Slavery Act is toothless, and therefore ineffective to prevent abuses which we know are taking place. 

The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, which has led the work in this area, has suggested a range of measures which should be considered, including enhanced disclosure requirements for companies, official guidance to industry, assistance in sourcing alternative materials, and the seizure of good which are, in effect, the proceeds of crime. They also favour creating liabilities for companies which fail in their obligation to prevent the fruits of forced labour entering their supply chains. 

In particular, and as a minimum, UK companies should operate on the presumption that all products produced in part or in whole in the Uyghur Region are at high risk of being tainted by forced labour. 

To be effective, the approach must be multi-jurisdictional. The CCP will not bat an eyelid if the UK buys fewer T shirts. But if similar measures are passed across major global markets, at least non Han Chinese minority groups will not be forced to pay for their mistreatment.


Listen to Maajid Nawaz speak on this issue before the House of Commons BEIS Committee inquiry.

Listen in particular to his words for Disney: