Coalition of over 180 human rights groups says major apparel brands continue to source millions of tons of cotton and yarn from Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where China is accused of forced labour and other rights abuses.

China is the world's largest cotton producer and 84 percent of its cotton comes from the restive region.
China is the world's largest cotton producer and 84 percent of its cotton comes from the restive region. (enduyghurforcedlabour.org)

A coalition of more than 180 rights groups has accused several of the world's biggest fashion brands of being complicit in the human rights violation of millions of people in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Brands continue to source millions of tons of cotton and yarn from the Uighur region, the coalition said, adding, roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contain cotton or yarn from the region.

"It is virtually certain that many of these goods are tainted with forced labour," the coalition said. 

The Chinese embassies in London and Washington did not respond to requests for comment about the campaigners' letter.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the United States earlier this month said the accusation of forced labour in the area was "both false and malicious."

READ MORE: US sanctions Chinese companies over Uighur Muslim abuse complaints

Companies managed scrutiny so far

The coalition has urged the global textile industry to eradicate all products and materials linked to forced labour within a year.

China is the world's largest cotton producer and 84 percent of its cotton comes from the restive region.

The coalition quoting Gulzira Auelkhan, a Kazakh woman who was formerly detained in a Chinese camp, said, "The clothes factory was no different from the [internment] camp. There were police, cameras, you couldn't go anywhere."

Global brands "have somehow managed to avoid scrutiny for complicity in that very policy – this stops today," said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

The only way global brands can ensure they are not profiting from the "exploitation" is by exiting the region and "ending" ties with suppliers there, said Jasmine O’Connor of Anti-Slavery International.

READ MORE: Tensions soar between nuclear powers as US orders China consulate shut

Retailers respond

Reuters news agency sent emailed questions to more than 30 leading global retailers about their supply chains in China and the origins of the cotton they sourced.

Almost all of the brands did not respond directly to the questions, but most said they had anti-forced labour policies and required their suppliers to comply with a code of conduct.

Only one retailer – US-based Costco – declined to comment.

All the companies that responded – including Gap, Patagonia and Zara-owner Inditex – said they did not source from factories in the region, but the majority could not confirm that their supply chain was free of cotton picked from the region.

Japanese retailer Muji said it used cotton from the Uighur region but that independent auditor had found "no evidence of accusations of forced labour ... at their mills".

US-based PVH – owner of brands from Calvin Klein to Tommy Hilfiger – said it would cut ties with any factories or mills that produce fabric or use cotton from the region within a year.

Companies such as IKEA and H&M, who use BCI to source cotton, have previously said they backed the decision to suspend licensing in the region and would no longer source from there.

US sanctions

The US has imposed sanctions on Chinese officials, companies and institutions over human rights violations linked to China's treatment of minority Muslim Uighurs in the region.

China has been widely condemned for setting up complexes in the area that it describes as "vocational training centres" to stamp out extremism and give people new skills.

On Monday, the US Commerce Department added to an economic blacklist 11 Chinese companies that it said were implicated in human rights violations in the region.

The step, which leaves the firms unable to buy components from US companies without US government approval, prompted an accusation of slander from China, which vowed to take measures to protect its companies' rights.

The Commerce Department said the companies were involved in using forced labour by Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups.

Among them are numerous textile companies and two firms the US government said were conducting genetic analyses used to further the repression of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.

It was the third group of companies and institutions in China added to the US blacklist, after two rounds in which the Trump administration cited 37 entities it said were involved in China's repression in the region.

READ MORE: Is the US using the coronavirus to build an anti-China alliance?

Source: TRTWorld and agencies