Just Do It: Stop forced Uighur labour in China
Jenna does this every morning before she reports to work. It's her daily ritual, bending low to lace those Nikes onto her feet. Jenna has grown to love the company that helped her reach her fitness goals, and to her, that iconic swoosh logo is more than just another sports brand.
On the other side of the world, another woman - roughly the same age as Jenna - stares at that familiar swoosh sign. She'll see it another 100 times before the day's end. That symbol of athletic excellence, which pulls American and European and global consumers to their brick and mortar or online stores, means something radically different in her world view. A view bonded to a hard chair in front of a sewing machine, with rows of other Uighur Muslim women tied to that same station and sad fate in Xinjiang, China.
She sits in that hard chair, sewing together Nike trainers. This, too, is a daily ritual, but one she cannot not run from. Unlike Jenna, she cannot not open a door and jog freely in the streets. She's a prisoner in a Uighur Muslim concentration camp in Xinjiang, China, entangled in Nike's vile global supply chain.
|Nike and other American corporate giants including Apple and The Gap, have continued cashing in on cheap labour|
These images may be notional, but earlier this year, researchers in Australia implicated Nike's supply side production in the exploitation of Uighur Muslim labour in Xinjiang. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) reports,
"In January 2020, around 600 ethnic minority workers from Xinjiang were employed at Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co. Ltd. Taekwang's primary customer is the American multinational company Nike Incorporated.
The Xinjiang workers are mostly Uighur women from Hotan and Kashgar prefectures, which are remote parts of southern Xinjiang that the Chinese government has described as "backward" and disturbed by "religious extremism".
Islam, in China, is being treated like a "mental illness" by the Communist Party-controlled government in Beijing. Enabling the state to brand Xinjiang's 11 million Uighur Muslims "terrorists", and in an evil turn toward genocide, China has placed an estimated 2 million inside their sprawling network of concentration camps.
Read more: China slaps tit-for-tat sanctions on US lawmakers, envoy over Xinjiang
These camps, dubbed "re-education centers" by the Chinese government, expanded in size and number beginning in 2013. Within those overpopulated camps, state agents are reportedly commissioned to heal the "mental illness" (Islam) through a myriad of horrors, including forcing Uighur Muslims to eat pork and drink alcohol, memorise and recite Communist Party propaganda, enroll in Mandarin language courses and cultural training devised to extract their true religion and identity.
Forced labour is another dimension of the genocidal hell in Xinjiang. Uighur Muslims, and predominantly Uighur women, are recruited to make products for western consumers at frighteningly low wages.
The United Nations broke the news about these concentration camps in August of 2018. The expose caused an immediate firestorm, pushing journalists and researchers to scrutinise China's maintenance of what amounts to modern concentration camps, as well as their treatment of Uighur Muslims beyond the camps in Xinjiang. Conditions that, when pieced together, meet the United Nations' definition of genocide.
The extensive body of evidence about Uighur Muslim abuse should by now have pushed Nike, and the dozens of other multinational companies implicated by APSI's study, to closely investigate their supply side operations. And if links to the camps were discovered, cease their activity with partners that exploit Uighur Muslim labour.
But, that is not the case.
Nike, and other American corporate giants including Apple and The Gap, have continued cashing in on cheap labour, while China's propaganda operation hides the atrocities from the world's view.
|This dystopian partnership enables a modern form of slavery that serves the political interests of China, seeking to eliminate the Uighurs from existence, and the financial greed of American companies|
This dystopian partnership enables a modern form of slavery that serves the political interests of China, seeking to eliminate the Uighurs from existence, and the financial greed of American companies like Nike.
But making those running shoes and shirts and phones, that net unimaginable profits for these Fortune 500 companies, comes at an repugnant human cost:
"At the factory, the Uighur labourers make Nike shoes during the day. In the evening, they attend a night school where they study Mandarin, sing the Chinese national anthem, and receive 'vocational training' and 'patriotic education'. The curriculum closely mirrors that of Xinjiang's re-education camps."
Then they sleep, then wake up again to those very sewing machines and swoosh logos that symbolise anything but athletic excellence, but pain and bondage and compelled labour.
China has leveraged its massive and mounting economic might to silence the world about the atrocities taking place in Xinjiang. This also includes many Muslim-majority nations, which traded off their principles to continue economic relations with China. Through a relationship of economic dependence and financial bondage, governments have been handcuffed from taking action and politicians bribed into submission.
This is how genocides begin, and are allowed to happen over and over again.
As a result, consumers in the West - like Jenna, you, and I - are largely unaware of what is unfolding with Uighurs in Xinjiang. Many in the US cannot fathom that products we use every day, from companies we have grown to trust and love, would be made - in part or in whole - by Muslims living between the crosshairs of forced labour and genocide.
Companies like Nike have no excuse for not being able to vouch for every link in their lucrative supply chain. And turning a blind eye to genocidal conditions in Xinjiang because low costs mean greater profits, is unacceptable. At best, it is grossly negligent to overlook that one of their contracting parties - China's Taekwang Shoes, knowingly and forcibly employs Uighur Muslim women.
Very likely, these are the trainers that Jenna straps on for her morning runs, or the shoes you and I have bought at one or several junctures of our lives.
Now that we do know, we should take action, and namely, economic action. The same economic action that China imposes on governments and nations, politicians and corporations to remain silent and do nothing. But leverage our collective economic might in the other direction, and divest ourselves as consumers from companies that profit from Uighur Muslim forced labour.
|Nike is no corporate stranger to doing right. It should do the same whether the victims of oppression are in the United States or China, Black or Uighur Muslims|
By recently declaring that "Black Lives Matter" and standing with Colin Kaepernick when he stood down to protest racial injustice, Nike is no corporate stranger to doing right. It should do the same whether the victims of oppression are in the United States or China, Black or Uighur Muslims, and demonstrate to its global body of consumers that siding with human rights is not only done when politically convenient, or when it aligns with converging economic interests.
As consumers, knowing the difference between self-interest solidarity and principled action should be as important as being able to distinguish between a $160 pair of Nike shoes and the $30 generic brand. Particularly when the fingerprints of genocide are all over the stiches and soles of the shoes we buy.
Just do it. Remove the Nike shoes from your real or online carts until they not only do better, but repair the damage their history of exploiting forced labour in Xinjiang has done to those bonded to those hard chairs and oppressive sewing machines. Forced to stare at a swoosh symbol, day in and day out, this is a link in the global supply chain that must be broken.
Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor and author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear. He sits on the United States Commission for Civil Rights, and is based out of Detroit.
Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.