Uyghur forced labour: do government measures go far enough?

Under the new guidelines, retailers still aren’t legally obliged to cut ties with modern slavery. Alexandra Leonards reveals why the latest measures aren’t likely to change things on the ground, and explores how retailers must look beyond the legal minimum to rid their supply chains of forced labour.

In January, UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab made an impassioned speech to the House of Commons about the human rights violations currently targeting the Uyghur people of China. The Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim minority ethnic group of around 12 million people living in the North Western region of Xinjiang.

Raab spoke about the detention of more than a million Uyghurs in political “re-education” camps, invasive surveillance, systematic restrictions on Uyghur culture, along with the involuntary sterilisation of women, torture, and the widespread use of forced labour.

“We must take action, to make sure that UK businesses are not part of the supply chains that lead to the gates of the internment camps in Xinjiang,” he said last month. “And to make sure that the products of the human rights violations that take place in those camps don’t end up on the shelves of supermarkets that we shop in here at home, week in week out.”

Raab called for meaningful action to ensure no UK business profits from the forced labour and persecution of Uyghur Muslims. But for all the strength of his words, some argue the new measures he later revealed fall short of this resolution.

“We welcome any kind of action, but [the government measures] don't go far enough,” says Rahima Mahmut, director of the World Uyghur Congress (UK). “This isn’t something that’s going to change anything on the ground; Dominic Raab’s words were so strong, but the measures don’t match that strength.”

Where the measures fall flat

The four measures announced by the foreign secretary include new guidance for UK businesses, the strengthening of the existing Modern Slavery Act, extension of transparency requirements to the public sector, and an ‘urgent review’ of export controls.

“I see the measures really as a missed opportunity for the UK government to actually take robust and strong action to make sure UK businesses are not directly or indirectly benefitting from Uyghur forced labour,” says Chloe Cranston, business and human rights manager at Anti-Slavery International. “I think it's really important to underline that the new UK measures do not translate into legal obligation for UK businesses to take action.”

Cranston says that some media organisations have portrayed the measures as legal requirements, which is a misunderstanding of what they actually mean.

She partly blames this on the strong rhetoric in which the measures were framed in the Government’s statement.

The new guidance from the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the Department for International Trade (DIT) explores the specific risks faced by companies with links to Xinjiang, including the threat of financial penalties.

But despite this, according to Cranston, the six paragraphs of guidance are “very scant” on detail, especially compared to the 19-paged guidelines published in the US last summer.

"We were quite aligned with business about the need for very clear guidance, making the risk clear in the region, making it explicit that the only way companies could respect human rights and reduce reputational risk would be to leave,” explains Cranston. “The guidance isn't explicit enough on that front."

Financial penalties aren’t what they seem

But surely dishing out fines for retailers that don’t comply with transparency obligations will discourage them from sourcing product in the Xinjiang region?

At first glance the introduction of financial penalties - which is part of Raab’s plan to bolster the powers of the Modern Slavery Act - seems the perfect deterrent.

However, the ‘transparency obligations’ referred to in the Act mean that companies must simply report on any due diligence measures taking place in the business. The law doesn’t force retailers to take concrete steps to mitigate forced labour in their supply chains.

“[The government’s] logic is that companies will voluntarily write in their modern slavery statement what due diligence they’ve done on this,” says Anti-Slavery International’s Chloe Cranston. “I expect they won’t write in detail, particularly given the sensitivity of the topic.”

Anti-slavery International says that while some companies have used The Transparency in Supply Chains Provision (TISC) of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act to address modern slavery, many have not.

“The big flaw there is adequate steps means writing a modern slavery statement, and our experience for the last five years is that writing a modern slavery statement does not translate to the majority of companies taking effective action, because it's a reporting obligation not a due diligence obligation,” says Cranston. “So, again, the media seems to have misreported that companies are now obliged to do due diligence.”

As part of the measures, the government is also set to conduct an urgent review of export controls “as they apply specifically geographically to the situation in Xinjiang.” Anti-slavery International welcomes the review, but stresses that it is an assessment rather than a commitment to export controls.

The bare minimum

Although the government’s new measures don’t legally oblige retailers to address forced labour in their supply chains, some argue that this effective loophole should not mean that retailers should shy away from affirmative action.

“For businesses, one of the greatest flaws of the Modern Slavery Act approach, is that it doesn’t create a level playing field,” explains Anti-Slavery International’s Chloe Cranston.

The retail industry is left in a position where some brands, like Marks & Spencer, are putting in the work to cut ties with any forced labour in the Xinjiang region, while others can do the bare minimum without being held accountable by existing laws.

“We have companies taking the steps they should and doing everything within their control and they're going to continue being undercut by companies which are doing the bare minimum,” says Cranston. “The measures announced by Raab are not going to level that playing field, they're not going to make every company have to do what Marks and Spencer is doing, that is a massive issue for the Uyghur community of course, for the anti-slavery community also, but also for business, because businesses are going to be undercut by those who aren’t taking those measures.”

But consumer priorities are adapting quickly. It is becoming less and less acceptable for retailers to avoid doing due diligence on forced labour in their supply chains.

“The long and complicated nature of modern supply chains means that any business can be implicated unwittingly in the exploitation and trafficking of people, but this is no longer an excuse,” says Malcom Harrison, group chief executive of The Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS.) “Retailers can no longer claim that they were unaware; no business should lay the blame on a supplier within their own supply chain because that demonstrates a shocking lack of control over the various elements in your company.”

There’s always the temptation to cut corners, especially in times of economic hardship, like during the pandemic. But Harrison says with consumers becoming increasingly concious of where their products come from, choosing the cheapest, least ethical option becomes a false economy.

“That’s without even considering the cost in human health and life. Do you really want your business to be attached to such malpractice?” asks Harrison. “But ensuring there is no slavery in the supply chain is just good governance and good control of your supply chains.”

He adds: “You wouldn’t want to sell products of inferior quality or be subjected to delays in the arrival of your goods, so why would you ignore an issue of this great importance – the exploitation of human beings for profit.”

Harrison says that with the lines between profit and social conscience no longer well defined, employees, customers, and consumers will “vote with their feet” if retailers aren’t shown to be ethical.

How can retailers cut ties with Uyghur forced labour?

Get to know suppliers

Education, a willingness to perform due diligence in every part of the supply chain, and ensuring suppliers are responsible for adherence to good practice, are absolutely crucial steps in ensuring there are not human rights abuses happening across a retailer’s often expansive supply chain.

“But this can only happen if retailers get to know their suppliers and develop strong relationships especially in countries where there are high instances of potential slavery,” says Malcom Harrison, at CIPS. “Paying suppliers a visit is the best way, though during the pandemic this has become more difficult and some companies may have taken advantage of less scrutiny and pandemic distraction to hide unsavoury practices.”

He adds: “Having anti-slavery clauses in contracts will shine a light on the issue so suppliers can conduct their own investigations. [Also] raise levels of awareness amongst your own teams and other departments that may either have some responsibility for buying goods or can support supply chain managers in their investigations.”

Anti-Slavery International is clear that businesses must know where their cotton is coming from and ensure none of it is sourced from the Uyghur region.

“Strive for transparency, transparency, transparency,” says Harrison. “Talk frequently to your suppliers and raise the issue often so they are aware and take action.”

He urges retailers to use data to find which regions are most likely to be involved in slavery and interrogate every tier of the supply chain. He also advises retailers to train all staff in spotting the signs of slavery and how they can report it.

The industry must work together

A big challenge for retailers is a lack of traceability across the supply chain.

“But there are solutions and in particular what we're really calling for is the industry to work together on this,” says Chloe Carston, at Anti-Slavery International. “And that's why we really need industries coming together and recognising this is an industry wide problem, that it doesn’t mean it’s just five leading companies doing what they can, it has to be the entire industry, and it has to be the certification bodies as well.”

She says that many companies want to take action, but they really need other businesses to come on the journey with them, especially because of how complicated Chinese supply chains can be.

“Each company is coming up with a different way of approaching this, and the more they share this information and come up with an aligned way that works, the better,” she explains. “Including understanding where to redirect sourcing to, because there’s a lot of different discussions about how companies are redirecting sourcing.”

Marks & Spencer recently announced that it had committed to cutting all ties with suppliers implicated in Uyghur forced labour and banning any sourcing from the region.

The multinational retailer also signed the Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour’s Call to Action, which is endorsed by more than 300 human rights and civil society organisations.

Marks and Spencer explains that setting standards and investing in its own operations can “only ever be a baseline.”

“To effect real change, particularly in an age of globalised, increasingly fast, and interdependent supply chains, we have to work with the wider industry and international bodies to tackle issues – and in signing the Call to Action we want to do just that and help driving meaningful change at scale,” it says.

Government to government dialogue

Peter Andrews, head of sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, says that the most effective approach to addressing the concerning human rights issues in China is government to government dialogue, as well as collaboration between government, industry, civil society groups, and representatives of workers at the centre of the allegations.

“We propose this issue is managed through setting up a multi-stakeholder task force to develop an agreed, collective approach to assessing the situation, increasing transparency, and protecting both the rights of workers and the integrity of global supply chains,” he says.

Beyond cotton

Retailers must also understand that the problem goes beyond cutting ties with cotton products from the Xinjiang region.

“A number of Chinese suppliers which are operating in the Uyghur region, who are accepting government subsidies, accepting Uyghur workers within the government’s forced labour scheme, some of which are providing investment to ramp up the government's system in the region, are or were key suppliers to western brands and retailers,” says Chloe Cranston, at Anti-Slavery International. “And what our call is for brands and retailers to end their relationships with those companies in their entirety, so not just to stop sourcing from those companies in the Uyghur region, but they must not be in a financial relationship with that company at all.”

“Can they really have assurance that that company is not still sourcing products from the Uyghur region if they’re [still] working with them in Vietnam or Eastern China?” she asked.

It’s also important that UK businesses realise that it’s not just imports that need to be considered.

Last year Amnesty international reported that European biometric surveillance companies risk facilitating the human rights abuses happening in China by selling their hardware and technologies to the region.

“[Another issue is Europe] exporting all this high-tech surveillance equipment and supplying certain products that could be used against the Uyghur people,” says Rahima Mahmut from the World Uyghur Congress. “I do feel it’s very important to blacklist the companies directly or indirectly involved in this high-tech surveillance policing.”

She explains: “[Uyghur people are] monitored 24/7 and it's the very technology [often being sold by European businesses] that is selecting people through computerised systems and providing names to the police about who should be arrested; so these completely computerised criminalisation processes are terrorising almost everyone in the region. Any companies in the West indirectly or directly linked to these high-tech surveillance companies are equally guilty of these atrocities.”

Not only do retailers have a moral duty to look beyond the legal minimum and ensure their supply chains have no links to modern slavery, they now face backlash from consumers who are becoming increasingly concerned by unethical practices in the market.

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