A new report implicates major brands in benefiting from forced Uighur labor in China. Liam Glen writes on how this exemplifies problems with modern supply chains, where accountability for labor abuses is nearly nonexistent.
The suppression and detainment of Uighur Muslims in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province has been at the center of international controversy over the past few years. It is an issue that extends beyond the country’s own borders. Given China’s status as one of the world’s leading manufacturers, it has been widely suspected that detainees are being forced to manufacture products for sale on the global marketplace.
Observers have raised alarms for some time now, but recently the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyzed satellite imagery, Chinese government documents, media reporting from the region, and other sources to compile a new report on Uighur forced labor.
Citizens from Xinjiang are coerced into working in factories throughout China under harsh “military-style management,” which often goes in hand with ideological indoctrination programs intended to instill loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party. At least 80,000 workers have been moved to these sites, though the actual number may be much higher.
Meanwhile, the goods made in these factories are moved on to other firms. The ASPI identified 83 Chinese and international companies who benefit from forced Uighur labor in factories outside of Xinjiang. This includes a range of well-known brands – Amazon and Apple, Nike and Nintendo, Victoria’s Secret and Volkswagen.
Forced labor in the global supply chain is an issue that goes in and out of the news cycle, but it is persistent. This incident provides just one further example of how the current economic order has failed to address it.
Human Rights in a Global Economy
The modern market allows companies to produce goods wherever in the world labor is cheapest. This has become an essential part of the international economy. It ensures low prices for consumers and provides opportunities for workers in developing countries. But it also has its share of costs – in particular, it means that exploitation can easily slip under the radar.
Along with cases of unsafe work conditions, poor pay, and child labor, there are an estimated 12 to 46 million people enslaved in the world. Whether forced labor is supervised by governments, as in the case of Uighur workers, or if it is done by private actors under the legal radar, it is one of the leading humanitarian issues of our time.
However, it is easy for those involved to evade responsibility. Modern supply chains rely on a complex string of suppliers, contractors, and subcontractors. A company might have no idea about the conditions in which its products were made.
When the private sector fails so drastically, it is usually the government’s duty to step in. However, it is difficult for states to regulate what happens outside of their borders. In the United States, the Tariff Act of 1930 banned imports made with forced labor. Enforcement, however, is weak. It was not until 2016 that Congress finally closed a loophole that let companies bypass the regulation.
Incentivizing Global Corporate Citizenship
Corporate executives and shareholders are under pressure to cut costs wherever they can. Even when they are not directly involved, they have an incentivize to adopt a see-no-evil-hear-no-evil approach to abuses in their supply chain. Both companies and consumers are happy to ignore the possibility that their products were made in inhumane conditions.
As long as forced labor is tolerated, there will always be a market for it. It will only be when companies take responsibility, investigate their supply chains, and refuse to do business with such suppliers that they will be unable to profit from it.
The case of Uighur labor not only highlights the extent of the problem, but also the difficulty in solving it. Companies will not act unless incentivized to do so. Governments in the countries where forced labor takes place are either complicit in the practice or too ineffective to stop it. Meanwhile, governments elsewhere lack both the ability and motivation to stop such goods from entering their borders. Advocacy groups do their best to identify abuses and shame violators, but their actual power is limited.
Thus, it is a problem of apathy. No one would openly say that forced labor in return for cheap goods is an acceptable trade. But very few are willing to accept the costs of seriously tackling the problem.