Since 2017 nearly a million ethnic minorities, mostly Uyghur Muslims from the far Western region of the Xinjiang province of China, have been put in detention centres. The detainees in these camps are forced to renounce their faith and, in some instances, have been subjected to torture.
The Chinese government has termed the program as a combat against “religious extremism” even as it detains members of ethnic minorities from the region and sends them to the so-called “re-education camps”. The experts however believe that these people have been thrust into a systematic program of cultural genocide.
This campaign now appears to be proceeding towards a new direction wherein the Uyghur detainees are being shipped across the country for forced labour in factories.
As per the government officials, these “trainees” have all “graduated” and are being given employment in the form of factory labour to lead a better life. While China has made this their sole criteria to defend the program, there is mounting evidence that suggests that the Uyghurs are being subjected to forced labour and are not allowed to visit their families in Xinjiang.
According to a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Uyghurs have been moved under a labour scheme known as Xinjiang aid to factories across the country straight from the detention centers. Many of these factories are a part of the supply chain network for well-renowned brands such as Apple, Nike, and Dell.
At the factories the workers are forced to live in separate rooms and are required to take Mandarin lessons under heavy surveillance. They are not allowed to leave their jobs and go back to their families in Xinjiang either.
John Oliver, host of popular US TV show “Last Week Tonight” recently aired an episode wherein he talked about the Uyghurs. “If this is the first time that you’re hearing about an estimated million people who’ve been held in detention camps – mostly Uighurs but also Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities – you are not alone. And it’s probably because China has done its level best to keep this story from getting out,” says Oliver.
John Oliver further said, “While there is clearly nothing new about horrific practices being hidden deep within the supply chain of global capitalism, what is happening to the Uighurs is particularly appalling”.
Despite China’s attempts at keeping the entire crackdown private, more and more horrifying details have come out in the open about the atrocities meted out to the Uyghurs via testimonies from former detainees.
This has led to an increased pressure on China as well as the big brands utilizing the Chinese supply chain network, to cut ties with factories where human rights are being violated under this Uyghur crackdown.
The US has restricted 11 Chinese companies from buying American goods due to claims of them being linked to the Xinjiang region. A coalition of over 180 organizations also called out dozens of clothing brands and retailers for links to the Xinjiang crackdown and forced Uyghur labour.
While some companies like PVH, the owner of brands like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger are working on reducing their presence in the Xinjiang region’s supply chain network others like Big W, a discount department store chain operated by Australia's Woolworths group acknowledged that some of their products might be unintentionally coming from the regions of Xinjiang province.
Companies like Nike, Puma, and Adidas have however continued to deny allegations of links to factories with forced Uyghur labour completely. In their statement Nike said, "We have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region."
With the increasing spotlight on the Chinese government’s repressive activities, international pressure is increasing on the business groups which depend on China for supply change, to come clean on any link of their vendors with Uyghur forced labour. There might be some hope, even if very little, for the plight of the Chinese Uyghurs after all.