China has forced more than half a million Uighurs and other minorities into picking cotton in the country’s western region of Xinjiang, new research suggests.
According to a new report released on Tuesday by the Washington-based Center for Global Policy, three Uyghur regions alone mobilized at least 570,000 people into cotton-picking operations through the government’s coercive labor training and transfer scheme in 2018.
But the report, which is based on analyses from government documents and state media reports, predicts Xinjiang’s total labor transfer of ethnic minorities into cotton picking likely exceeds that figure by several hundred thousand.
China has previously received international condemnation over reports it has detained Muslim minorities and forced them into labour, but the government claims the work is part of a large-scale poverty alleviation campaign.
Up until now, evidence for forced labor in Xinjiang pertained only to low-skilled manufacturing, including the production of textiles and apparel. However, this new report provides evidence for coercion specifically related to cotton picking.
It also has big implications for global supply chains. Xinjiang produces around 85 percent of China’s and 20 percent of the world’s cotton, which is used by fashion companies across the globe.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin refuted the findings of the report. “Helping people of all ethnic groups secure stable employment is entirely different from ‘forced labour’,” he told a media briefing in Beijing, according to Reuters.
He added that nearly 3 million people had been lifted out of poverty in the region and that all ethnic groups in Xinjiang could choose their occupations.
Governments must be 'proactive' in investigating supply chains
Earlier this month, the US placed a Withhold Release Order on cotton produced by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.
However, this entity only produces 33 percent of Xinjiang’s cotton and only 0.4 percent of its highest-quality long-staple cotton, according to The Center for Global Policy, whose report provides evidence for coercive labor related to all cotton produced in Xinjiang.
“The US government should put a Withhold Release Order on any product that contains cotton from any part of Xinjiang, not just cotton produced in XPCC regions,” The Center for Global Policy said.
“This could be based on a “rebuttable presumption,” similar to the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, shifting the burden of proof to those who seek to use such products in their supply chains.”
The report continued: “Companies should be required to thoroughly investigate the role of Chinese cotton in their supply chains, even if any related production takes place outside China, but this by itself is insufficient. Governments must also be proactive in related monitoring procedures.”
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