Forced Labor in China and University Logo Apparel

To:WRC Affiliate Universities and Colleges
From:Scott Nova
Date:February 21, 2020
Re:Forced Labor in China and University Logo Apparel

I write concerning the human rights and forced labor crisis in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The WRC is in the process of developing concrete guidance for licensees concerning the actions necessary to ensure they are not putting universities’ names on goods made with forced labor. We expect to be able to share this guidance within the next several weeks.
In this communication, I want to provide a brief overview of the forced labor crisis, the risks for the university apparel supply chain, and our efforts to determine the actions licensees should be taking.
The Chinese government’s campaign of repression against the Uyghur people (and other Turkic Muslim minority groups) includes:

  • The extra-judicial detention of more than 1.5 million people in what the US government has called “concentration camps,”
  • Torture, forced political indoctrination, and other abuses of detainees,
  • The forced separation of families,
  • The implementation of a vast apparatus of surveillance, and
  • The use of multiple forms of forced labor, both inside the internment camps and in workplaces across the region.

The new report of the bi-partisan Congressional Executive Commission on China provides a detailed examination of the grievous human rights violations in the XUAR, including widespread forced labor. The report cites the conclusion of human rights practitioners that these abuses constitute “crimes against humanity” under the international legal definition.
This forced labor crisis—the most severe the WRC has ever encountered in its work—poses a massive challenge for the apparel industry because of the large role the XUAR plays in apparel supply chains. As you know, the WRC helped expose a garment factory in the XUAR that was using forced labor in the sewing of university logo goods, which led the US government to ban all imports from that factory.
The greatest risk, however, is not at the level of garment sewing and assembly, but down the supply chain, in the production of cotton and yarn. The XUAR is the source of nearly 20 percent of the world’s cotton. That cotton feeds mills across China, making yarn and fabric. The fabric is then used to make clothing in thousands of garment factories. Many are in China, but Chinese fabric is also used in millions of garments made in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, and elsewhere. We estimate that more than one in five cotton garments coming into the US from Asia contains cotton from the XUAR, including university logo apparel. In addition, the Chinese government is subsidizing, and recruiting workers for, leading Chinese textile firms with yarn spinning operations in the XUAR—yarn made by these companies also finds its way into products imported to the US.

The crisis in the XUAR creates major risks for the university apparel supply chain, because:

  • Forced labor at any level of a licensee’s supply chain violates university labor codes (and US law, which prohibits the import of goods with any forced labor content),
  • Forced labor is now so widespread in the XUAR that there is a risk of its presence at virtually any factory or farm, and
  • The methods that licensees and labor rights monitors would normally use to verify compliance at a worksite cannot be used under current conditions in the XUAR, because no worker can speak candidly to labor inspectors without risking violent reprisals from the government.

Given these realities, it is a virtual certainty that goods with forced labor content are currently entering the university logo apparel supply chain, a situation that will continue unless licensees take preventative measures. And it is difficult to see how forced labor content can be kept out of collegiate products unless licensees reroute their university supply chains away from the XUAR.

The WRC recognizes that there is no simple or easy way for licensees to remove all XUAR content from their products. Cotton and yarn production, where the risk lies, are levels of the supply chain where apparel brands generally do not track their sources of supply. The logistics, both of identifying existing sources of cotton and yarn and finding alternate sources, are complicated and would take time to implement. Brands with a substantial retail presence (and/or with many personnel) in China are also fearful that if they take a stand against the abuses in the XUAR, there will be consequences for their broader business interests in China, given that the government has shown itself eager to hit back at those who criticize its human rights practices. These obstacles need to be addressed effectively.

At the same time, these obstacles cannot serve as justification for doing nothing. What we are witnessing in the XUAR is the largest internment of an ethnic and religious minority since World War II. Universities’ labor standards, US law, and the moral urgency of the crisis all require that strong action be taken. Indeed, we have not talked to anyone in the industry who argues that the status quo is acceptable.

The WRC is consulting with key licensees about the crisis, about possible solutions and about how logistical and diplomatic challenges to effective action can be addressed. It will help, at least in the case of some licensees, that a sizable amount of university logo apparel is produced in the Americas, where cotton, yarn, and cloth from China are generally not used. As noted above, we expect to be able to provide our recommendations to licensees within the next several weeks. We will of course share these recommendations with affiliate universities and colleges.

It is important to note that the recommendations the WRC is formulating concern potential changes in licensees’ sourcing policies and practices. We do not anticipate recommending policy changes by universities, because university codes already prohibit any forced labor in the production of logo apparel. Our recommendations will address what licensees should be doing to comply with existing university requirements and with US law.

I also want to note that the WRC is in dialogue with a wide range of organizations, including leading human rights groups, on the question of how brands and retailers beyond the collegiate sphere should be addressing this crisis. In addition to our university role, we hope to contribute, through this dialogue, to an industry-wide solution.

Please let me know if you have any questions.