By Tara Everton
February 11th marks the beginning of New York Fashion Week (NYFW), an event considered to be a celebration of the best of fashion. Many have worked tirelessly in anticipation of this event — but, unfortunately, this does not just include top designers and high fashion models, but also Uyghur Muslims from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Right now, more than one million Uyghur Muslims are forced “into a disciplined, Chinese-speaking industrial workforce, loyal to the Communist Party and factory bosses,” as The New York Times put it. Since 2017, in a systematic effort to dehumanize and eventually eliminate the Uyghur population, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has arbitrarily detained and transferred around three million Uyghurs to forced labor camps and factories across China, subjecting them to constant political indoctrination and grueling abuses.
And what do these factories produce? The shirts, pants, cloth masks, and other items many of us may unknowingly be using.
According to the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region:
– 1 in 5 cotton garments in the global apparel market is linked to Uyghur forced labor;
– 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon supply comes from the Uyghur Region; and
– 17+ global industries are implicated in Uyghur forced labor.
Many of the luxury fashion brands that will undoubtedly be praised during NYFW — Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and many more — may be profiting from the exploitation of Uyghurs. With deep and dark irony, the fashion industry has recently been deemed “resilient” by Steven Kolb, the chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America; and Vogue even noted that NYFW will feature “a new guard of thinkers, designers, and change makers.” Irony at its finest.
As part of the organization’s Wear Your Values program, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) recently launched a Uyghur Forced Labor Checker, a Google Chrome extension which generates a pop-up to inform online shoppers whether the apparel brands they are buying from might be linked to Uyghur forced labor. The checker is based on data from the Coalition’s advocacy efforts and research, and aims to foster greater consumer awareness of the hidden social costs of fashion.
While HRF’s Chrome extension primarily targets and engages consumers, other attempts have been made to hold high-end fashion brands — and the industry as a whole — accountable. On December 23, 2021, President Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) into law, ensuring “that goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China do not enter the United States market.” While this piece of legislation was deemed a victory for the Uyghur people and is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, there are still several loopholes which hinder the Act’s ability to address the issue in its entirety.
The Chinese government often transfers Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and other ethnic groups outside of the Uyghur Region — and to hide their tracks, the CCP claims these transfers are part of a larger “poverty alleviation” program. Thus, the goods forced laborers produce in other regions can and will enter the United States market, likely with ease. It is important to note that the UFLPA solely applies to the United States market, so goods made with Uyghur labor will continue to enter global markets unless similar pieces of legislation are passed outside the United States.
Given the loopholes of UFLPA, there is an ongoing demand for greater transparency in the supply chain. This transparency may come soon — at least in New York. On January 7, 2022, Assemblywoman Dr. Anna R. Kelles and New York State Senator Alessandra Biaggi introduced the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, which New Standard Institute director Maxine Bédat explained “will require companies to perform mandatory due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for actual and potential adverse social and environmental impacts in their supply chain.” If the bill passes, fashion retail sellers and manufacturers in New York will be required to disclose their environmental impact and labor practices, and hundreds of companies will have to own up to their links to Uyghur labor.
New York fashion surely must be sweating.
Strides have and will be made, but the abuse of the Uyghur community is a deeply-established and concerningly-resilient production. The upcoming “celebration” of the fashion industry — New York Fashion Week — presents a clear opportunity to hold designers, brands, and manufacturers accountable. They can be “changemakers” — unironically.