[Op-Ed] Uyghurs’ Forced Labor in China
“Let’s go to Zara this weekend, I urgently need new clothes and their fall collection is amazing!”, a friend said to me recently. I politely told her that I couldn’t, and that we could maybe shop elsewhere. She looked at me, curious to know why I wouldn’t go. I explained that Zara, even after receiving a lot of warnings, still profits from Uyghurs' and other muslims minorities’ forced labor to produce a lot of their clothes and to cultivate their cotton in China, and that I could not in good conscience just shop there while knowing this. My friend did not know who Uyghurs were. Like many people around the world, no matter their level of education, my friend was not aware of the existence of these people, their culture, and more critically right now, their horrible living conditions in China.
The Uyghurs are a Muslim ethnic minority in China, predominantly living in the Xinjiang province. They have their own language and their traditions are closely related to Islam. About 10 million Uyghurs still reside in the Xinjiang region, and approximately 2 million outside of China. Uyghurs have for many years been persecuted by China. The government wants to restrict their ability to practice their culture and religion, their goal being to assimilate them to the majority Han Chinese culture.
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been detaining more than one million Muslims in internment camps all over Xinjiang. The main goal of this is, as Maisumujiang Maimuer, a Chinese religious affairs official, said in 2017, to “break their lineage, break their
roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” In these camps, the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities such as ethnic Kazakhs andd ethnic Kyrgyz, are victims of physical violence, sexual abuse and inhumane torture. According to detainees who were able to escape those camps, they are living in overcrowded spaces, deprived from correct alimentation and sleep, with no access to proper medical care. They are also victims of severe physical and psychological abuse, meant to “treat” them and to make them renounce their religion and culture, for instance by pressuring them to drink alcohol or to consume pork. Women’s body autonomy is also rigorously monitored and disregarded: violations of their reproductive rights, by forced sterilization, forced abortions or controlled birth are common occurences in these horrendous camps.
Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz and other muslim minorities are also forced to work in nearby or farther factories for little to no financial compensation. In Chinese factories, in Xinjiang’s prisons or agricultural areas, they produce everyday consumer products, varying from clothes to kitchenware and electronic devices. All these products produced by forced labor end up in our malls, in our stores and later in our own hands. As I am typing this on my computer, I am also being an indirect accomplice of the Uyghurs’ forced labor, as seven Apple suppliers were accused of participating in the PRC’s labor programs. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and other companies are also linked to the same suppliers, using their technology and product, contributing to enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people.
Zara, Apple, Nike and almost all companies accused of being implicated in Uyghurs’ tragedy, claim to prohibit forced labor in their supply chains. However, most of them offer no credible explanation considering their producers’ links to regions where all goods are likely to be tainted by enslavement. By continuing to operate with these producers, and maintaining ties to these regions and factories, those major companies are complicit in what many have broadly recognized as crimes against humanity and genocide.
Governmental entities have tried to take action, and to warn companies and brands of the risk that their production could be closely linked to forced labor and human rights abuses. In a long advisory, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and the U.S. Department of Labor detail the conditions under which Uyghurs and other muslim minorities are forced to work for various factories and companies in order to produce an array of products that US-based companies might be working with. They also emphasize “the four primary types of potential supply chain exposure to entities engaged in human rights abuses''. This includes doing business with the PRC government in Xinjiang, related to the development of surveillance or genetic collection technologies, and procuring Xinjiang’s labor or goods, or other regions’ connected to the use of forced labor of individuals from Xinjiang. Overall, this advisory gives businesses the right tools to be aware if they were related to the horrors perpetuated in China. Companies can know if their supply chain is unethical, and if they contribute to crimes against humanity, but a lot of them turn a blind eye, and either act as they don’t know or as they’re irreprochable. In December 2021, Congress adopted the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), requiring the US administration to prevent goods produced in Xinjiang from entering US markets. This is a rather extensive measure, as it treats all goods from this region as possible products of forced labor, and prohibits all such goods from entering into the United States. Earlier in June 2020, the President signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, which officially recognized human rights violations and abuses of Uyghurs and members of other ethnic Turkic minority groups in the Xinjiang.
These actions by the US government matter, and have a certain impact. Nevertheless, it is not enough. As a genocide is happening right under our eyes, we should all be doing more. Institutions should more strictly condemn what is happening in China, and should maybe impose a general boycott of all brands and companies who keep making profit off Uyghurs’ lives. History has taught us that when people remain silent when one group is targeted and threatened, dramatic events occur and, at the end of the day, all humanity bears the toll of this prejudice.