S in ESG now looks at China supply chain human rights of Uyghurs

An update on another big move forward for the S for Social (and Human Rights) in ESG and ethical fashion.

Yes the #BlackLivesMatter movement is beginning a big step forward, as was #Metoo towards ending harassment of women (and quiet parallel efforts of many brands to support women’s empowerment initiatives in global supply chains).

Now though 200 plus civil society players have aligned (quite the feat) in calling on global fashion companies and retailers to take steps to #EndUyghurForcedLabour.

EndUyghurForcedLabourThis Call to Action targets the Apparel and Textiles sector. Previously though, Tech firms were engaged to stop selling surveillance and other related IT which can assist human rights abuses, and firms involved in construction engaged to stop selling over complicity in construction of the “re-education camps”, where it is reported that over one million Uyghur people are held. 

There have been reports from the camps of torture and other atrocities.

Companies with China sourcing should do business human rights due diligence, and ESG investors should check companies are taking the steps expected.

The Apparel #EndUyghurForcedLabour Call to Action asks companies to do five things:
Disengage from business relationships with any:
1. production facilities in the Uyghur Region being utilised to make apparel and/or other cotton-based goods.
2. supplier based outside the Uyghur Region that has subsidiaries or operations in the Uyghur Region that have accepted Chinese government subsidies or employed workers provided by the government, regardless of whether the products the supplier makes for [signatory] are produced in the Uyghur Region.
3. supplier that has employed, at a workplace outside the Uyghur Region, workers from the Uyghur Region sent by the government.
4. Instruct all suppliers in China and globally to end all sourcing of all finished products or inputs produced in the Uyghur Region. Instruct all suppliers globally to end their business relationships with any company that would be prohibited under A.
5. Disengage from business with all suppliers in China and globally that do not agree to take the steps in 4 as outlined for all production, and do not provide proof that it has done so.

Being in China’s remote west, the Uyghur Region (called in China “The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region”), has never been a key sourcing destination like PR China’s western provinces of Guangdong in the south and the Yangtze Delta/Shanghai seaboard provinces (where silk mills started generations ago).

Therefore, the biggest challenge in this Call to Action will be dealing with suppliers outside the Uyghur region and across China, the majority of most buyers suppliers in China.

The Call to Action further states, for suppliers outside Xinjiang
“The company may refrain from ending the relationship if a supplier stops this employment and remediation is provided as agreed with the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region (see #1). [Signatory] will direct all suppliers not to use government-provided labour sent from the Uyghur Region and will conduct verification via methods developed in consultation with human rights and labour organisations endorsed by the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region.”

This is where the real challenge is going to come.

Firstly, the human rights and labour organisations (I worked on apparel supply chains for Human Rights Watch, a signatory), know well the endless reports on the ground of falsification of records, coaching of workers to lie to social auditors, and offering of bribes to auditors. In fact someone in south China told me just like week of a team member being offered a bribe by a south China factory to make a factory’s social compliance look good in an audit.

The notorious “fake records” and cheating (not universal, but prolific) though, happen for a reason. Chinese labour law is surprisingly strict, minimum wage rates are higher than in Bangladesh, etc; and western brand buyers and certifications often (usually) expect full compliance whilst demanding fast delivery of orders and last minute sewing or printing or other changes,..for ever decreasing prices. Now factories are reportedly already starting to hide Uyghur workers, especially if they actually were sent as forced labour. 

The above risks are why I am glad in my brand roles I was able to arrange many unannounced audits with investigative offsite worker interviewing in advance.

But this takes supplier pre engagement effort preferably in the year before so auditors are not turned away at factory gates. (and training like the photo).

Deeper more robust auditing like this to ensure a buyer truly understands the real labour conditions and risks (as US import law now requires), also costs more, which is where legal pre-competitive peer brand collaboration becomes beneficial.

But this article is long enough, so we’ll elaborate on that in another article.

For now….the Take-aways:

  1. Risk of forced labour of Uyghur people in suppliers across China has been rising;

  2. Civil Society are now coming together to hold business to account to take action to influence freedoms;

  3. Visibility of where risks lie on the ground in supply chains will require deep, robust investigations;

  4. Influencing suppliers to remediate Uyghur freedoms may be complicated;

  5. As both investigation and remediation will be more complicated, Collaboration is key.

  6. Collaboration with civil society stakeholders is required in this Call to Action,..and delivered results in the past e.g. the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety.

  7. Laws in the USA and other countries, and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights encourage companies to deeply investigate, collaborate and partner with stakeholders.

We’d love to hear your thoughts, or any questions on this and/or brand collaboration. 

We’re happy to share non-confidential insights from our experience working with brands and on the issues.

Click here to comment or question…..or contact us here.

Thanks for reading,…

and for Using your Voice as a Buyer or Investor to support Freedoms for Uyghurs.

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