China’s ‘tainted’ cotton: New Uighar cotton evidence 'Game-changer' for fashion brands
Xinjiang’s cotton growing industry used to rely on seasonal, migrant workers from other provinces in China.
But cotton picking is notoriously hard work and rising wages and better jobs elsewhere mean the migrants have stopped coming.
Now propaganda reports write glowingly of how the newly found supply of local labour has both solved this labour crisis and helped increase profits for the growers.
But nowhere is there any real explanation of why hundreds of thousands of people, who apparently had no previous interest in picking cotton, should suddenly rush into the fields.
Although the documents claim that pay levels can top 5000 RMB ($763, £570) a month, one report appears to suggest that for 132 pickers organised from one village, the average monthly salary was just 1,670 RMB ($255, £188)) each.
Whatever the salary level, paid labour can still be considered forced labour under the relevant international convention.
In response to questions submitted to China’s foreign ministry, the BBC received a faxed statement saying: “Workers from all ethnic groups in Xinjiang choose their jobs according to their own free will and sign voluntary employment contracts in accordance with the law.”
Xinjiang’s poverty rate has fallen from almost 20% in 2014 to a little more than 1% today, it said.
And it dismissed accusations of forced labour as “completely fabricated”, saying instead that China’s critics wanted to cause “forced unemployment and forced poverty” in Xinjiang.
“The smiling faces of all of Xinjiang’s ethnic groups are the most powerful response to America’s lies and rumours,” it added.
But the Better Cotton Initiative, an independent industry body that promotes ethical and sustainable standards, told the BBC that concerns over China’s poverty alleviation scheme were one of the main reasons they’ve recently decided to stop auditing and certifying farms in Xinjiang.
Director of standards and assurance, Damien Sanfilippo, said: “We’ve identified the risk that poor, rural communities would be coerced into employment linked to this poverty alleviation programme.
“Even if these workers get a decent wage – which is possible – they may not have chosen that employment freely.”
Mr Sanfilippo, who also cited the increasingly restricted access to Xinjiang for his international monitors as another factor, said the organisation’s decision to walk away only further raises the risk for the global fashion industry.
“To the best of my knowledge there isn’t any organisation that is active locally who can provide verification for that cotton.”
The BBC approached 30 major international brands. Three – Marks and Spencer, Next, and Tesco – told us they have policies in place that ensure products sourced from China do not use raw cotton from Xinjiang. Burberry said they do not use any cotton from China at all. Others, including those who don't source direct from Xinjiang, were unable to guarantee its cotton didn't enter supply chains elsewhere. Nine companies gave no response.
It is just one of many such complexes that now dot the landscape, and a chilling final reminder of the blurred boundaries between mass incarceration and mass labour in Xinjiang.