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Nike says China-based supplier sent all Uyghur workers home amid forced labor allegations

Nike Store China (Banalities/Flickr)
July 23, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A China-based supplier to Nike has stopped hiring employees from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and sent all workers from the region back home, the footwear giant said in a statement on Tuesday, amid scrutiny over possible links between its supply chain and forced labor.

In early March, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) said that tens of thousands of ethnic Uyghur detainees in the XUAR have been transferred to factories throughout China, where they are forced to produce goods for at least 83 global retailers, including Nike, Apple, BMW, The Gap, Samsung, Sony, and Volkswagen.

Following ASPI’s report, Nike said in a statement on its website that it was reviewing its suppliers’ hiring practices in China and claimed one of its biggest suppliers in the world, South Korean-owned Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co., was exploring ways to end the contracts of Uyghur workers making shoes in its factory.

On Tuesday, in response to questions about the current state of its supply chain in China, the Oregon-based footwear company said it had confirmed that there are no longer any Uyghurs working for Qingdao Taekwang.

“When reports of the situation in XUAR began to surface last year we engaged with management at Taekwang’s Qingdao factory, in consultation with industry experts, as they evaluated their employment of migrant workers from the region,” Nike said in a statement emailed to RFA’s Uyghur Service.

“Taekwang subsequently stopped recruiting new employees from XUAR to its Qingdao facility in 2019 and has confirmed that all remaining employees from XUAR have now returned home. Through the diligence process Taekwang shared documents that indicate all employees at the facility, including migrant workers from XUAR, had the ability to end or extend contracts their contracts at any time.”

In its statement, Nike noted that it does not source products or components directly from the XUAR and said it had “confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region,” which grows 85 percent of China’s cotton, by official estimates.

The footwear manufacturer said it has also been conducting ongoing diligence with all of its suppliers to identify and assess potential risks related to the employment of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities from the XUAR.

“This remains an issue of critical importance and we will continue to fight against inequality in any form,” Nike said.

“We are continuing to draw on expert guidance and are working with brands and other stakeholders to consider all available approaches to responsibly address this situation.”

Call for proof

Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, U.S. author and commentator Gordon G. Chang questioned Nike’s statement.

“Maybe they’ve sent all the Uyghur workers home, but I think that Nike needs to show proof that that has in fact occurred because Nike has been making statements that do not appear to be true,” he said, suggesting the company’s statements to The Washington Post for an article the paper published in February were incorrect.

That month, The Washington Post reported on labor practices at the Taekwang factory, which it said has been a Nike supplier for more than 30 years and produces about 8 million pairs of athletic shoes annually.

The report said at the time that around 700 of the factory’s workers were Uyghurs from the XUAR, who Taekwang claimed offset local labor shortages, adding that it was not aware of any requirements for them to undergo ideological training.

Post journalist who visited the site said they saw “dozens” of Uyghur workers who were “too afraid to talk,” but cited local residents who interact with them as saying the workers had not come to the factory freely.

Chang called on the U.S. government to put measures in place that ensure an end to the importation of goods made with forced, slave, or indentured labor.

“U.S. policy is moving in the right direction,” he said. “It can be done and I’m sure more will be done.”

The XUAR is home to a vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since April 2017.

Beijing describes its three-year-old network of camps as voluntary “vocational centers,” but reporting by RFA and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.

Amid pressure from the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, the European Union and the United Nations, experts believe that China has begun sentencing those held in internment camps to prison as part of a bid to legitimize their continued detention, or relocating them to factories both inside and outside of the XUAR as forced labor, under the guise of providing them jobs connected to their so-called vocational training.

Entities list

Nike’s response comes a day after the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) added to its Entities List 11 Chinese companies involved in alleged human rights abuses in the XUAR, barring them from access to U.S.-sourced commodities, technology, and other items. Amongst the entities was Hong Kong-headquartered Esquel Group—one of the world’s largest garment producers and a supplier for brands that include Tommy Hilfiger and Patagonia—as well as two other textile mills.

In a statement on its website, Nike claims that it does not have a relationship with Esquel Group, which it said ASPI had inaccurately reported in March.

Esquel Group on Tuesday denied that it uses forced labor from the XUAR and said it would lodge an appeal of the Commerce Department’s decision, while China’s foreign ministry accused the U.S. of abusing export control measures and vowed to “continue taking all necessary measures to safeguard our companies’ legitimate rights and interests.”

Late last month, French company Lacoste became the second global retailer after Adidas to “agree to cease all activity with suppliers and subcontractors” implicated in ASPI’s report, following the launch of a campaign by EU Parliament member Raphaël Glucksmann pressuring brands to end ties with factories connected to forced labor.

The U.S. has aggressively ramped up its response to reports of abuses in the XUAR, with President Donald Trump’s administration earlier this month leveling sanctions against several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in the region, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, followed Trump’s enactment last month of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA), which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress at the end of May. The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them.

Pending legislation

Congress may soon debate new legislation which would prohibit imports from the XUAR to the U.S. amid the growing evidence that internment camps in the region have increasingly transitioned from political indoctrination to forced labor, with detainees being sent to work in cotton and textile factories.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, introduced in March, would block imports from the region unless proof can be shown that they are not linked to forced labor.

The same month the act was introduced, Scott Nova, executive director of Washington-based labor watchdog Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), spoke to RFA about how forced labor products from the XUAR are finding their way into the global supply chain and how retailers can use their leverage to hold factories to account.

“In the case of garments, where one-fifth of the world’s cotton supply for the fabrication of cotton garments comes from Xinjiang, it is virtually certain that goods with forced labor content are flowing into the United States as we speak,” he said at the time.

“The U.S. has started to take enforcement actions and it should do so more energetically and more aggressively.”