Friday

5th Mar 2021

Opinion

How EU can help end Uighur forced labour

"Our job is to show that what you are wearing is connected to the worst crime against humanity of today." In a few words, MEP Raphael Glucksmann captured why Europeans must act to end Uighur forced labour.

The European Union and European governments have an opportunity to work multilaterally to end transnational companies' operations with suppliers in China's Uighur region.

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By doing so, Europeans will take a meaningful step towards ending complicity with an ongoing genocide.

Make no mistake, there is plenty of unhappiness in Europe at Chinese government policies targeting Uighurs.

Across the continent legislators, government officials, the media, academics, and non-governmental organisations have expressed their dissatisfaction - from Ireland, to France, the UK, Austria, and the EU.

Europeans are asking the right questions about forced sterilisations, organ harvesting, and trade with China. They are also calling for action, and it is on the issue of Uighur forced labor where Europe can make a definitive impact.

Several well-sourced reports have exposed the stain of Uighur forced labour, including research from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC).

A recent CSIS briefing noted apparel and footwear as the leading exports from the Uighur region with a combined value of $6.3bn [€5.3bn] representing over 35 percent of total exports.

CSIS adds the importance of apparel to the regional economy combined with numerous firsthand accounts from Uighurs "employed" in this sector means this level of the global supply chain is likely tainted with forced labor.

However, the analysis also makes this stunning observation: "The extent to which XUAR apparel is still shipping directly to the European Union is not known because of weak EU import data."

On July 23, a coalition of over 250 organisations issued a call for "leading brands and retailers to ensure that they are not supporting or benefiting from the pervasive and extensive forced labour of the Uighur population and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples."

In response, Adidas and Lacoste agreed to cut ties with implicated suppliers and subcontractors, others implicated" in the ASPI report have not made any position on Uighur forced-labour public.

First-hand testimony

If the mounting evidence of entrepreneurial opportunism and exploitation in the Uighur region isn't enough to convince the EU and European governments to tighten up monitoring of imports and enact legislation against Uighur forced labour, perhaps the testimony of survivor Gulzira Auelkhan might resonate:

"I was told the factory made handbags and some clothes as well, but I only ever worked on gloves. The products were exported abroad, we were told, and sold to foreigners. You made some money, but if you stopped working, they sent you back to the camp. So, there wasn't much of a choice."

The movement of concern about the Uighur crisis demonstrated by European legislators can be converted to effective measures on Uighur forced labour.

Given geopolitical realities and the existing political structure in Europe, coordinated action makes sense. A multilateral approach on Uighurs is nothing new for European states.

In July 2019, 18 European countries, as well as Japan, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, signed a statement addressed to Michelle Bachelet, United Nations high commissioner for human rights, calling for an end to mass detention, as well as expressing concern over repressive surveillance.

A second joint statement, delivered in October 2019 before the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, highlighted violations of Uighur human rights and included Albania, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the UK.

In June 2020, 21 European states were among 27 countries urging "China to allow the high commissioner meaningful access to Xinjiang at the earliest opportunity."

Since 2010, the European Parliament has been calling on the EU to create an effective traceability mechanism for goods produced through forced and child labor. This is framed as a necessary step towards a complete ban on forced-labour imports.

Uighur cannot wait another 10 years for Europe. Complicity with China's vast scheme to indefinitely lock up Uighurs in forced-labor factories must end.

Three practical steps

I suggest three ways forward: firstly, the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) should hold hearings to better understand EU companies' connection to Uyghur forced labor in their supply chains.

Secondly, MEPs should ensure the European Commission's proposed legislation on mandatory human rights due diligence in global supply chains includes strengthened provisions addressing forced labor.

Finally, the EU needs to take steps to ensure availability of import data to allow for greater transparency over transactions in cases where forced labour is suspected.

As MEP Glucksmann has poignantly expressed, the clothes Europeans are wearing could be made by forced labourers.

Ending Uyghur forced labor is not only an issue confronting us in our wardrobes and on our bodies, but also in our stores and warehouses.

Europe can end profits from slave labor and remove the accusation of complicity with gross violations of Uyghur human rights. It must legislate and not accommodate.

Author bio

Omer Kanat is executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington DC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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