Never Again: The UK’s Responsibility to Act on Atrocities in Xinjiang and Beyond Contents

4Forced labour and the private sector

Box 8: Submission from a Uyghur relative

What I am asking for are basic human rights for my family, and for all Uyghur families. How can China be allowed to get away with this?

Source: Confidential

39.Many people who ‘graduate’ from the internment camp system are coerced into state-organised forced labour programmes. Between 2017–19 alone, more than 80,000 Uyghurs were forcibly transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China, under the Xinjiang Aid programme.60 More recent estimates suggest that at least 570,000 people from Xinjiang have been forced to pick cotton.61 Workers are typically paid little to nothing. Satellite imagery reveals factories surrounded by barbed wire fences, surveillance cameras, and guard towers.62 84% of China’s cotton comes from Xinjiang, and China provides a quarter of the world’s cotton products.6364

40.With these facts in mind, we are seriously concerned that products and materials made from Uyghur forced labour are making their way into UK value chains. We heard that “virtually the entire” UK textile and clothing industry is linked to the abuses in Xinjiang.65 Commissioner Nury Turkel of the United States Commission on Religious Freedom told us that there is a serious risk of consumers unknowingly buying products made from forced labour:

When you go to the store and reach out to the shelf, especially to the cotton products, don’t forget that a quarter—a fourth—of the world’s cotton products are made in China and sourced in the Uyghur region. When you reach out to the shelf to pick up a beauty item—a wig—you have a chance of buying a Uyghur prison woman’s hair … When you buy baby pyjamas, you have a chance of buying a product made by enslaved Uyghurs.66

Box 9: Advertisement for Uyghur workers

The Xinjiang Government has organised around 1,000 trainees from Xinjiang who have already passed political and medical examinations … The advantages of Xinjiang workers are: semi-military style management, can withstand hardship, no loss of personnel … Minimum order 100 workers!

Source: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Uyghurs for Sale, March 2020, p 17

41.In this chapter, we set out the measures we believe that the UK Government should take to extricate Uyghur forced labour from UK value chains. Doing so will send a powerful message to those running forced labour programmes that their products will not be accepted in UK markets.

42.In January 2021, the Foreign Secretary announced a series of measures intended to prevent UK businesses from being part of supply chains which include Uyghur forced labour. These measures were:

While any action on the Xinjiang atrocities is welcome, these measures, regrettably, will not go far enough. More than five months since the announcement, the Government has not made clear when the urgent export review will be concluded. The crisis in Xinjiang is far too urgent for delay. In its response to this report, we ask that the Government inform us of when the Department for International Trade will share the export review’s findings and actions with Parliament.

Box 10: Explainer: Transparency in Supply Chains, Modern Slavery Act 2015

The transparency in supply chains provision of the 2015 Modern Slavery Act “requires certain businesses to produce a statement setting out the steps they have taken to ensure there is no modern slavery in their own business and their supply chains. If an organisation has taken no steps to do this, their statement should say so.”

Businesses are only required to produce a statement if their total turnover reaches or exceeds £36 million.

Source: UK Government, Transparency in Supply Chains etc. A practical guide, accessed June 2021

43.As it stands, the transparency in supply chains provision of the MSA (see Box 9) only requires companies to report on their efforts to monitor the state of forced labour in their value chains; it does not compel them to remove the use of modern slavery when it is found.6869 Likewise, we heard from Peter McAllister of the Ethical Trading Initiative that simply issuing guidance will be unlikely to change the behaviour of businesses who do use forced labour.70 We therefore reject the idea that Government guidance, as well as non-binding rules such as the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,71 will encourage businesses to do the right thing. As well as imposing punitive fines for non-compliance with the reporting elements of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, we recommend that the Government introduce new legislation that will create a legal requirement for businesses and public sector bodies to take concrete measures to prevent and remove the use of forced labour in their value chains. This new duty should be backed up by meaningful sanctions and penalties for non-compliance.

44.Compliance with this new duty should be reported in companies’ Modern Slavery Statements. The criteria for producing these statements are also in need of reform. Civil society actors have previously called for the reporting threshold to be lower.72 We heard from Andrew Opie of the British Retail Consortium that the costs of improving due diligence for businesses operating in China would likely be “marginal”.73 In the Government’s own words, “no business can consider themselves immune from the risks of modern slavery”.74 As such, any business with international supply chains should be required to conduct appropriate due diligence and to demonstrate transparency. We recommend that the Government review the £36m threshold for businesses to be required to produce Modern Slavery Statements, with a view to reducing it.

45.Efforts to strengthen forced labour prevention in the private sector will require both political and bureaucratic resourcing to ensure all officials and staff are aware of the risks of doing business in certain countries, with comprehensive guidance around individual country labour standards provided by central Government.75 Trade commissioners, envoys, and officers should be equipped with regularly updated toolkits and training to ensure they are fully informed of the forced labour risk associated with the countries in which they are working. This should be supported by a public Government-led grading system of countries’ adherence to global labour standards as set by institutions like the International Labour Organization.

46.Throughout the course of this inquiry, we have heard that the issue of forced labour in Xinjiang is pervasive, widespread, and extremely difficult to monitor effectively.7677 Outside auditors are regularly denied access to Xinjiang factories and forced labour workers are coerced into silence.78 Because of this, the United States announced a ban on cotton products from Xinjiang in January 2021.79 Certain businesses have taken similar measures.

47.Private companies such as ASOS, River Island, and NEXT told us they were taking steps to reduce the risk of using cotton sourced from Xinjiang,8081 although NEXT disclosed at the time that it was “likely” that there was “some” Xinjiang cotton in their products.82 On the likelihood of Xinjiang produce being sourced from forced labour, Primark told us:

Our initial response to the situation in Xinjiang began in October 2019, when we made the decision to end our relationship with the only factory from which we sourced finished goods in the XUAR … We believe our position is appropriate and proportionate given the reports which have emerged regarding alleged human rights abuses and the use of forced labour in Xinjiang, and because we are unable to undertake the due diligence or auditing that we would normally carry out when such claims emerge.83

48.Unless proven otherwise, the mass incarcerations and connected factories and farms mean it should be assumed that any product originating from Xinjiang is the product of forced labour. While much focus has been placed on the textile and apparel sector, other areas such as solar energy,84 agriculture, and electronics also bear a substantial risk of using forced labour.85 Until there can be definitive proof that products are not tainted by forced labour, UK companies and consumers should not be purchasing them.86 The Government should explore the possibility of banning the import of all cotton products known to be produced in whole or in part in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, in line with WTO rules. While we primarily heard evidence on the cotton industry, we believe this ban should be extended to other industries.

49.We believe this measure to be necessary until more precise value chain analysis and scrutiny is possible. Technological solutions may prove invaluable in solving the challenge of assessing value chains for forced labour, as David Sävman, Head of Supply Chain at H&M Group, told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.87 The Government should issue guidance to business to implement modern means of traceability and product origin verification as part of their due diligence measures.

Box 11: Letter from Pippa Wicks, Partner and Executive Director, John Lewis

Cotton traceability is an industry-wide issue due to its long and complex global supply chain … We recognise that there are limitations to audits and certification programmes as they are often just a snapshot in time … We are investing in activities that go above and beyond audit and compliance to support supplier improvement and capacity building, which will make a tangible difference to on-the-ground working conditions.

Source: Correspondence with John Lewis, 18 December 2020 and 14 January 2021

50.Further measures should be taken with companies who do business in China more broadly. A number of the companies we wrote to reported that they worked with factories in China who had signed up to ethical guidelines, and due diligence processes.8889 However, we must also acknowledge that many factories throughout China make use of Uyghur forced labour. To ensure UK companies in China meet their ethical responsibilities, governments, and companies operating in China need to share knowledge of specific factories and companies in which forced labour is used, and of those where good due diligence practices are supported.9091 The Government should share Post-level intelligence on specific risk areas and factors with UK companies operating in China when appropriate to do so, to ensure it contributes to and supports private sector due diligence within the country.

51.Additional information will help businesses to discontinue use of forced labour factories but will not compel all to do so. The Government has announced its plans to provide “guidance and support to UK Government bodies to exclude suppliers where there is sufficient evidence of human rights abuses in any of their supply chains.”92 We reiterate our view that guidance alone will not be sufficiently effective. Stricter measures will be necessary. The Government should use information gained from local sources, Posts, and civil society to identify specific factories and companies that make use of forced labour and prohibit them from importing into the UK through the sanctions regime.

52.As with the other atrocities in Xinjiang, there is an urgent need for international investigation in order to ensure the possibility of future accountability. In correspondence with the Chair, the International Labour Organization (ILO) informed us of its intent to investigate allegations of forced labour in China in December 2021 and December 2022.93 Given the wealth of already available evidence of egregious human rights abuses in Xinjiang, it is disappointing that the ILO is not acting more swiftly. The UK should press for the International Labour Organization to conduct a full investigation of the Xinjiang region in order to verify the extent of forced labour there as a matter of urgent priority.

60 Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Uyghurs for Sale, March 2020, p 3

62 Justice for All (XIN0043) para 6

63 Anti-Slavery International and the CORE Coalition (XIN0063) para 2

64 Q41 [Nury Turkel]

65 Anti-Slavery International and the CORE Coalition (XIN0063) para 4

66 Q41 [Nury Turkel]

67 HC Deb, 12 January 2021, col 161–162 [Commons Chamber]

68 Q184 [Chloe Cranston]

70 Q97 [Peter McAllister]

71 The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are a series of non-legally binding guidelines setting out the responsibility of businesses to promote and protect human rights.

72 Q185 [Chloe Cranston]

73 Q95 [Andrew Opie]

75 Q103 [Andrew Opie]

76 Q170 [Chloe Cranston]

78 Q100 [Andrew Opie]

79 Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, USA bans all cotton products and tomatoes from Xinjiang over forced labour concerns, 14 January 2021

80 Correspondence with ASOS, 27 January 2021 and 11 February 2021

82 Correspondence with NEXT, 28 January 2021 and 9 February 2021

83 Correspondence with Primark, 20 October 2020 and 10 November 2020

85 Q179 [Chloe Cranston]

86 Q195 [Peter Irwin]

87 Oral evidence taken before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on 5 November 2020, HC (2019–21) 810, Q4 [David Sävman]

88 Correspondence with Uniqlo, 9 November 2020 and 23 November 2020

89 Correspondence with Burberry, 19 October 2020 and 9 November 2020

90 Q90 [Andrew Opie]

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