Cotton On and Target investigate suppliers after forced labour of Uyghurs exposed in China’s Xinjiang
16th July 2019
On a cold Melbourne afternoon in June this year, 34-year-old Gulnur Idreis’s phone started to ring. It was a video call coming from her elderly parents in Xinjiang, China. Any contact with them was precious.
- New evidence that China is funnelling Uyghurs from re-education camps into factory work
- Major fashion retailers are now investigating whether their suppliers use forced labour
- Women have spoken out about being forced to work in factories making clothes and gloves
Like all members of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China, they had spent the past two years living through a dystopian nightmare.
In early 2017, the Communist Party began a new incarceration campaign, rounding up, detaining and forcibly indoctrinating Uyghurs and other Muslim minority ethnic groups in the far-western region. Islam has effectively been outlawed in the far-western region, with people routinely labelled as extremists and imprisoned for practising their religion.
A UN committee describes the province as resembling a “mass internment camp”, with estimates more than 1 million Uyghurs have been sent to prison or re-education camps. Many of those not detained have had their passports seized and live under constant surveillance.
Whenever they could, Gulnur’s parents in Urumqi would quickly call her in Melbourne on the Chinese social media app WeChat to let her know they were OK.
The calls couldn’t last long. The Chinese government can monitor all communication in the region. Contacting relatives overseas is enough to get Uyghurs sent off to a camp.
When Gulnur answered the call that afternoon, she was shocked to see the face of her older sister, Dilnur.
In February 2017, 38-year-old Dilnur and her husband were both arrested and sent to camps. A qualified nurse, Dilnur had spent years working at the hospital attached to Xinjiang Medical University.
Fearful of authorities listening in, Dilnur quickly began to desperately scribble out a series of notes and held them up for her sister in Melbourne to read.
She said that in May she was sent from the camp to work against her will in a factory and that she wanted Gulnur to take the dangerous step of telling the world her story.
“‘Please speak up for me. Stand for me. Never give up.'”
“She wrote this down and showed it to me and I saw it,” Gulnur told Four Corners.
Gulnur quickly took screenshots of the notes that described what was happening to her sister:
“660 people are brought in shackled and handcuffed and it is big,” she said.
“They have no choice, they will end up in jail, if they say something.
“Tell them it has been two years, [I have] not been released.
“They don’t want the journalist to know about it and they don’t want it to be spread.”
Most disturbingly, Gulnur said her sister kept motioning that she wanted to end her life, running her hand across her neck.
“She looked very exhausted and emotionally very distressed. She doesn’t like to live anymore,” Gulnur said.
“She said for me, please help me. If I can’t [get] out of this place, you can tell the international [community], the government. Whatever you can do.”
Dilnur still doesn’t know where her husband is.
Using the screenshot of her employee ID card, Four Corners has tracked down the company Dilnur says she is being forced to work for.
It appears to be a textile company called Urumqi Shengshi Huaer Culture Technology Co, based in a technology park 30 kilometres north of Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.
Dilnur told her sister that she sleeps in the factory dormitory and that she’s only allowed home once a week to see her children and parents.
She said her eyesight is poor and if she can’t do the complicated embroidery required, then she is forced to clean the factory.
“My sister is a nurse. She didn’t know how to make the clothes,” Gulnur said.
Mounting evidence of forced labour
Mounting evidence suggests a system of forced labour is emerging in Xinjiang.
Last October, Chinese State TV broadcast Uyghurs dutifully sewing at a camp in Hotan, raising the alarm that detainees were being put to work.
Satellite imagery of what appeared to be large warehouses in close proximity to re-education camps began to gain the interest of researchers around the globe, including Nathan Ruser, a satellite analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“You’ll see attached buildings which appear to be factories,” he said.
“When you look at their construction, you’ll see that they’re a large, single-room building which basically looks like an enormous warehouse. There’s no internal structure to these buildings.”
A mother made to sew gloves
In Almaty, Kazakhstan, Four Corners interviewed Gulzira Auelkhan, another Chinese citizen who says she was forced to work in a factory in Xinjiang.
Gulzira says she was detained in Yining County and made to sew gloves that she was told would be sold in Europe.
“There were police when you enter and leave the factory, they will check our phones and conduct body search,” Gulzira said.
“Even while we were working, there will be police, observing us.”
Gulzira had spent more than a year in re-education camps, separated from her young daughter and husband back in Kazakhstan.
She told Four Corners detainees were not the only people forced to work against their will — unemployed people and farmers were also being sent to the textile park.
“They were told by their local government: ‘instead of unemployment, why not go work in these factories … but if you don’t want to, you will be sent to the camp’,” she said.
Gulzira, who has residency in Kazakhstan, says she was eventually released and was allowed to leave Xinjiang in January 2019, after the Chinese released a small number of Kazakhs detainees.
Evidence of plans for a wider scheme
German academic Adrian Zenz is credited with helping to uncover the network of camps in Xinjiang when they first emerged in 2017.
He says he has shocking new evidence that these women’s stories of forced labour are not isolated cases.
“Basically, there’s a huge scheme going on, a huge plan in Xinjiang to put all kinds of people into different forms of involuntary labour,” he told Four Corners.
“I realised it was kind of next level material in terms of what the Chinese state is capable of doing.”
Dr Zenz has been analysing a new trove of Communist Party official documents and state media articles.
He believes the Chinese government has plans to put as many camp detainees to work as they can.
“It’s not sustainable to keep one or more million people locked up in camps for very long amounts of time. The goal of the government is to eventually release people, but not to release them into freedom,” he said.
“They’re being moved around a bit like figures on a chess board and they’re put into places where the government can control them.
“Knowing Xinjiang, this kind of cooperation is not voluntary, it’s being enforced.”
Other reports detail how detainee labour is being used to attract companies to set up shop in Xinjiang.
“For example, if a factory trains and then employs a camp detainee, they get 5,000 renminbi per worker over a course of three years. They also get intensive subsidies, for example they can use a factory building for free for the first two years,” Dr Zenz said.
Dr Zenz believes the labour schemes are about creating total social control over the Uyghurs.
“Those who are in the camps are supposed to get jobs, permanent factory jobs. The reason is that in these jobs the government can control them,” he said.
“They can’t take off on Friday to go to the mosque, they also can’t fast, they cannot do basic religious practise. It’s about total ideological control and it means that the party is going to control everything.”
Australian companies investigating supply chains
Four Corners can reveal that the following brands sold in Australia source cotton from Xinjiang: Target, Cotton On, Jeanswest, Dangerfield, Ikea and H&M.
Cotton On and Target Australia are now investigating their relationships with suppliers in Xinjiang.
The Cotton On Group sources cotton from Xinjiang-based subcontractors, Litai Textiles.
Litai Textiles operates two factories in the cities of Korla and Kuytun.
Asked if Cotton On was confident the cotton yarn it sourced from Litai Textiles was not being produced by people working against their will, the company told Four Corners it was not aware of the issues raised and would now undertake an investigation.
The company also confirmed a staff member last year visited Litai Textiles’ Korla factory, which is located just six kilometres away from a massive re-education camp in the town.
Target Australia told Four Corners that one of its direct suppliers is using a small amount of cotton yarn from a mill owned by a company called Huafu Fashion Co in Xinjiang.
In May, a worker at a Huafu mill in the city of Aksu told the Wall Street Journal she had come to the mill from a secret training program which removed her “extremist thoughts”.
In a call, the manager of the Huafu factory denied to Four Corners that his company used any form of involuntary labour.
Target Australia said it was, “conducting a review of the situation”.
Questions remain about well-known brands
International brands H&M, Adidas and Esprit are investigating or have suspended their relationships with Huafu following The Wall Street Journal report and UNIQLO, Nike, and PVH Corp — the company behind Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger — said they are looking into the issue of forced labour in Xinjiang.
Nike said it was reviewing whether its suppliers sourced materials from the far-western region.
Ikea told Four Corners that about 15 per cent of its cotton comes from Xinjiang, but that is not aware of any forced labour among its sub suppliers in China.
Australian fashion brand Dangerfield says it sources up to 7 per cent of its cotton from Xinjiang, but that it inspects factories and that its suppliers have signed agreements not to purchase cotton that is produced from forced labour camps.
Woolworths said some of the cotton Big W sources is likely to be from Xinjiang and that it is “working to improve traceability and transparency in key high-risk commodity areas, like cotton, through our Responsible Sourcing Program over the next 12 months.”
Questions still remain about the cotton supply of many other well-known Australian brands.
Just Group, which owns Just Jeans, Dotti, Jacqui E, Peter Alexander, Portmans and Jay Jays, sources 84 per cent of their products from China but would not tell Four Corners which regions the goods come from or rule out that they were from Xinjiang.
Similarly, the Noni B group, which owns Rockmans, Katies, Liz Jordan, W.Lane, Table Eight, Rivers, Millers, Crossroads and Autograph, said China is one of its four main suppliers and would not rule out that products came from Xinjiang.
Dr Zenz says it will soon become impossible to determine whether manufacturing products made in Xinjiang are made with labour from former detainees or not.
“Western companies stand an increasing risk of having products made by forced or at least highly involuntary labour somewhere in the supply chains. It’s going to become inevitable as the scheme is unfolding and getting bigger and bigger,” he said.
The Chinese embassy did not respond to Four Corners’ repeated requests to visit Xinjiang.
Last month when Four Corners put the allegations to ambassador Cheng Jingye at an event in Canberra, he denied there was a system of forced labour in Xinjiang.
“It’s a training and education centre to help people who are affected by radical ideas, ideology to better integrate,” he said.
Dr Zenz believes that the forced labour schemes in Xinjiang will lead to systemic breakdown of Uyghur family life as it was once known.
“The way that you re-engineer and change an ethnic group, an ethnic society is if you break up their core units,” he said.
“You break up the family unit by making the parents work full-time in different places.
“That’s also how you inhibit what’s called intergenerational transmission of culture and religion. Meaning the parent’s ability to pass on the cultural and the spiritual heritage to the next generation.
“If you can control that, then you basically have control over the entire next generation of these ethnic groups.”
La Trobe University associate professor James Leibold, one of the world’s leading experts on ethnic minorities in China, told Four Corners that China’s attempt to re-engineer the thoughts, behaviour and beliefs of 11 million Uyghurs to create a society loyal to the Communist Party amounts to cultural genocide.
“If you look at the legal definition of genocide, it has to be systematic, it has to be intentional. This is an act of cultural genocide and one of the worst human rights abuses of our time,” he said.