Uighurs and global brands – an entanglement of economic interests and human rights

Fathima Shirin

After the data leak, known as the Karakax list in February, an Australian think tank has accused the Chinese government recently of transferring more than 80,000 ethnic Uighurs out of internment camps and into factories that supply major international brands. In a new report, Uighurs for sale, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) identified at least 27 factories across China where detainees from camps in the western region of Xinjiang had been relocated since 2017.

Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist, and author who was once imprisoned for his criticism of the government wrote an article for The New York Times, in January this year. In the article titled Capitalism and Culturecide, he writes,

“In recent years (at first barely noted in the West), an annihilation of the language, religion, and culture of Muslim Uighurs has proceeded systematically. About a million people have been sent to ‘re-education camps,’ where they have been forced to denounce their religion and to swear fealty to the Communist Party of China.”

“Multinational corporations including Volkswagen, Siemens, Unilever, and Nestlé have factories there. Supply chains for Muji and Uniqlo depend on Xinjiang, and companies such as H & M, Esprit and Adidas use Xinjiang cotton. We might ask: What is it about this remote place, to which the emperors of old banished criminals in lieu of sending them to prison, that makes it so attractive?“

Ai Weiwei goes on to further this dilemma, “Might a ‘culturally different’ nonwhite labor force play a role? People in no need of control because a harsh Communist government is already doing that work?“

Hello, you’ve got blood on your feet.

“At the Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co. Ltd factory, the Uyghur laborers make Nike shoes during the day. In the evening, they attend a night school where they study Mandarin, sing the Chinese national anthem and receive ‘vocational training’ and ‘patriotic education’. The curriculum closely mirrors that of Xinjiang’s ‘re-education camps’“ reports ASPI.

It does not begin or end there. In all, ASPI’s research has identified 83 foreign and Chinese companies directly or indirectly benefiting from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang through potentially abusive labor transfer programs. To point out a few – Acer, Adidas, Amazon, Apple, BMW, Dell, Gap, Google, H&M, HP, HTC, Huawei, Lenovo, LG, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Nike, Nintendo, Nokia, Oppo, Panasonic, Puma, Samsung, Siemens, Skechers, Sony, Tommy Hilfiger, Toshiba, Uniqlo, Victoria’s Secret, Vivo, Volkswagen, Xiaomi, Zara, etc.

Some brands are linked to multiple factories.

Thousands of Muslims from China’s Uighur minority group are working under coercive conditions at factories that supply some of the world’s biggest brands. The so-called labor transfer scheme is the latest on the attacks on the community by the government.

“It is extremely difficult for Uighurs to refuse or escape these work assignments, which are enmeshed with the apparatus of detention and political indoctrination both inside and outside of Xinjiang,” the ASPI report says. “In addition to constant surveillance, the threat of arbitrary detention hangs over minority citizens who refuse their government-sponsored work assignments.”

ASPI said foreign and Chinese companies were possibly unknowingly involved in human rights abuses. It has called on them to conduct immediate and thorough human rights due diligence on their factory labor in China.

But of course, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a myth. Workers in countries of global markets are exploited at will by corporations in a “modern slave work” system. The entanglement of our economic interests and human rights, choking the latter has always been the norm and is not something new.

China does not deny the existence of these detention camps but only rephrases it as re-education camps or as the genteelism “ War on terror”.

“The ASPI report is just following along with the US anti-China forces that try to smear China’s anti-terrorism measures in Xinjiang,” China’s spokesman Zhao Lijian said.

More and more global firms are relying on the vast Chinese market for their sales and profits. But doing business in China means walking alongside the Communist Party and any criticism can cost their business. Today, the global businesses are all complicit in this new trajectory of flirtation of culture and commerce or rather as Ai Weiwei puts it, ‘Capitalism and Culturecide’.

Corporate success is the primary objective of all global companies.

Would they stand on a firm moral ground that would damage this interest? But how do we as consumers ensure that we are not complicit in these forced labor practices? Whether we are techies or rookies, whether we buy from thrift stores or shopping malls, whether we are concerned or not, many of us are directly or indirectly aiding to this abuse of human rights. How do we push brands to be more transparent about the make-up of their supply chains and the preventative measures they have put in place to ensure forced labor does not occur? Is it impossible to boycott these brands that have been listed?

The tectonic plates of worldly affairs have been rubbing on us loud enough, long enough, yet we refuse to shake. And hence it comes as no surprise that today, the way we carry ourselves has made a complete shift from the good or bad dichotomy to a compass of a greater or lesser evil. “The least bad choice”.

So how do we establish a truly humanistic ethos, where the people are directly involved in protecting the common and individual rights that provide conditions of life worthy of human dignity?

Have we already run out of time?

Fathima Shirin is an architecture graduate from Srinivas School of Architecture, Karnataka. Shirin writes on architecture, development, and culture.

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