Compromise or let go? Difficult choice of labor guard dogs in China | Labor rights


Tokyo, Japan – When the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) was launched in 2005 with a promise to promote the use of traceable and sustainable cotton in global supply chains, the non-profit organization (NGO) focused on regions cotton farmers with a documented history of human rights violations.

BCI’s mission took her to Xinjiang, China, homeland of the Uyghur ethnic minority, where the NGO began working in 2013.

To facilitate its work on the ground in one of the world’s largest cotton-growing regions, BCI has partnered with state-owned Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a company that rights groups Rights and Western governments have accused it of overseeing the arbitrary detention and forced labor of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities.

Despite growing evidence of abuses detailed in NGO reports and media investigations in 2018 and 2019, BCI continued to operate in Xinjiang until October 2020.

The nonprofit’s exit came months after the US Office of Foreign Assets banned transactions with the XPCC over its role in “serious ethnic minority rights abuses”.

In a statement that has since been removed from its website, BCI, which is headquartered in London and Geneva, said “continuing allegations of forced labor and other human rights abuses” were a factor. of his departure. BCI has since declined to comment on its decision to leave Xinjiang, or why it took so long to act.

“BCI has never issued a public apology, and the president has never faced the media about it,” Brett Mathews, Apparel Insider editor and apparel supply chain expert, told AlJazeera.

“Where was the due diligence? Why haven’t they done any research on the XPCC and its known links to all sorts of atrocities against the Uyghur population? »

BCI did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.

Beijing has denied allegations of rights abuses and genocide in Xinjiang and credited its “vocational education and training centers” with reducing violent extremism and poverty.

Difficult decisions and compromises

The BCI case is one of the most dramatic examples of the hard choices and trade-offs labor and human rights monitors must face when operating in China under what critics call a regime increasingly authoritarian President Xi Jinping.

Rights groups including the Fair Wear Foundation, Workers Rights Consortium, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior and Amnesty International have all found themselves unable to continue working in mainland China or Hong Kong.

Those that remain are increasingly subject to strict controls and oversight that risk undermining their ability to identify or address human rights issues in global supply chains.

“Since 2015, the Chinese government has targeted and suppressed labor groups,” Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, a Hong Kong-based activist with the Clean Clothes Campaign, told Al Jazeera.

“The risk factor has, to my knowledge, deterred many surveillance activities.”

Border controls and other travel restrictions, which have been tightened under Beijing’s draconian “zero COVID-19” strategy, have made it increasingly difficult for foreign observers to even enter China or access, for example, facilities in Xinjiang considered high risk. for forced labor.

Even digital surveillance has become difficult, campaigners say, due to new data security laws that have already impacted the availability of information from the automatic identification system used to track vessels.

Over a 19-day period in October and November, the level of shipping data available for Chinese waters fell by around 90%, according to trade information firm VesselsValue.

Pervasive surveillance that makes secure communication with workers difficult and potentially risky is another concern. Right-wing groups have documented numerous incidents where Uyghurs and Tibetans have been detained for simply communicating with people abroad.

Amnesty International is one of a number of rights watchdogs that have found themselves unable to operate in China [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Big brands have argued that there are ways to monitor supply chains despite the limited space for civil society and the media, underscoring the role of nonprofit, multi-stakeholder labor monitoring initiatives in China. These initiatives, which include the Netherlands-based Social and Labor Convergence Program (SLCP), primarily hire for-profit companies like Bureau Veritas, Intertek and SGS Global Services to assess factories and businesses throughout a supply chain against predefined criteria.

“As the world’s largest apparel and textile producer, China has naturally been one of the SLCP’s priority countries,” SLCP spokeswoman Holly Menezes told Al Jazeera.

“China remains the country with the highest share of verified reviews. In 2021, of the 4,400 SLCP-verified assessments conducted globally, 45% were conducted by facilities in China.

In addition to the SLCP, other important labor monitoring initiatives operating in China include US-based Social Accountability International (SAI), UK-based Sedex, and amfori BSCI, which was established by the Association European foreign trade. Although there are many other standards bodies, such as Fair Trade and the Forest Stewardship Council, these four initiatives are the most widely used among global multinationals to assess forced labor risks.

“The assessments provide a solid foundation for brands and other stakeholders to take a data-driven approach to identifying non-conformances and risks in their supply chain facilities, including on topics such as labor forced,” Menezes said.

Critics, however, argue that this model – where companies monitor other companies using voluntary criteria – has often failed to identify labor and safety risks, and is particularly ill-conceived for the Chinese context, with its ubiquitous surveillance and meager labor rights.

‘A [assessment] cannot address the broader structural issues or the whole business model and the context in which production occurs,” Nana Frishling, an Australian business and human rights expert, told Al Jazeera.

Activists point to the fact that the sites of the Ali Enterprises fire in Pakistan and the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, in 2012 and 2013, respectively, had been certified to work and safety standards by partners Sedex and SAI – although they obviously didn’t. .

Rana Square
The Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh was certified to work and safety standards by international auditors before its collapse in 2013 [File: Andrew Biraj/Reuters]

“There are well-documented levels of fraud where supplier factories are, for example, cleaning the factory before an auditor comes – or telling the kids to go hide in the back, that sort of thing,” Frishling said.

There is also evidence that Chinese authorities are obstructing these inspections. The US State Department, in a 2020 business advisory, warned companies sourcing from China that supply chain monitors “would have been detained, harassed, threatened or arrested at the airport.” There are also reports of falsified records, bribes paid to inspectors and inconsistencies in reporting.

Asked about these concerns, amfori BSCI highlighted its Integrity Program, which, according to a spokesperson, “provides a comprehensive, robust and independent acceptance process for auditing firms to engage in auditing activities. amfori BSCI and guarantee excellence in audit quality at the level of the auditing company and the auditor. ”

Sedex, which pre-pandemic hosted conferences and events in China focused on supply chain transparency and labor risk, said in an emailed statement that “we are helping companies to ensure global supply chains that source from many different countries…although we do not work directly with our members to address forced labor and human rights sourcing risks in China .

Social Accountability International declined to speak to Al Jazeera.

Some workers’ rights activists fear that SAI, SCLP and Sedex are making the same mistake they believe BCI has made – turning a blind eye to forced labor and allowing companies to continue sourcing cotton from China while claiming that their supply chains are certified free of forced labour.

“There are so many gaps,” said Mathews, editor of Apparel Insider. “They’re still trying to protect their business in China, they don’t want to leave that market because it’s huge for them.”


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