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UK urged to suspend cotton imports from northwest China over 'Uighur Muslim slave labour' fears

One million ethnic Uighurs are believed to be held in camps in Xinjiang [AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 23 April, 2020

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The World Uyghur Congress and the Global Legal Action Network called on the British government to suspend cotton imports from China's Xinjiang region.
Uighur campaigners and lawyers have called on the UK government to suspend cotton imports from a vast area of northwestern China, Reuters reported, due to allegations of the widespread use of forced labour in a region where the more than a million Muslim Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are thought to be detained.

The World Uyghur Congress (UWC) and the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) said in a letter to the UK government on Thursday that there was "overwhelming evidence" that the cotton manufactured in Xinjiang for brands such as H&M, Ikea, Uniqlo and Muji were made in Uighur "prison camps".

The United Nations estimates that at least a million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in internment camps and prisons in China's Xinjiang region. 

The two organisations urged the UK to investigate the use of forced labour and suspend imports of cotton from the region unless companies could prove there was no forced labour in their supply chains.

"These supply chains and the import of this cotton must be halted," said director of GLAN Gearoid O Cuinn, in comments shared by Reuters.

"Its production is reliant on the largest systematic incarceration of an ethnic group since the Holocaust."

GLAN said it would undertake legal action if the UK government did not take any steps. 

Clothing retailer H&M said it had never worked with factories in Xinjiang and that it sourced its cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) - which said last month it would no longer source from the northwestern Chinese region.

Ikea said it supported the BCI move. "Under no circumstances do we accept any form of forced labour in the IKEA supply chain," a spokesman told Reuters.

In the US, lawmakers have pushed for a ban on imports from Xinjiang due to the widespread use of forced labour in the region.

The US already bans imports made with forced labour, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers said virtually anything coming from Xinjiang should be considered tainted by the mass detention and repression of Uighurs.

A February from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimated that more than 80,000 Uighurs were transferred from Xinjiang to factories across China between 2017 and 2019. The report said it found "conditions that strongly suggest forced labour" consistent with International Labor Organisation definitions.

China has long suspected that Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim and culturally and ethnically distinct from the majority Han Chinese population, of harbouring separatist tendencies. In recent years, though, it has dramatically escalated its campaign against them by detaining more than a million people in the internment camps and prisons.

Read more: Can Beijing's mask diplomacy win hearts and minds in the Arab world?

The Chinese government has dismissed international criticism of the campaign as meddling in its internal affairs and described the camps as vocational training centres. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang has rejected the findings of the report and denied the use of forced labour.

"The legitimate labour rights and interests of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are protected according to law, and there is no such thing as forced labour as claimed by someone with ulterior motives," Geng told reporters.

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