Please enable javascript to access the full functionality of this site

Shoe Factory - 1920s

Your favorite Nikes might be made from forced labor. Here’s why.

By Vicky Xiuzhong Xu and James Leibold

Your favorite pair of Nikes might have been made using forced labor. So might many of your other favorite products.

For months, our team of researchers based in Australia has been tracking the movement of Uighur citizens from their homeland in the western region of Xinjiang to other parts of China. We found that in the past three years, more than 80,000 of them have been transported to factories across China, where they are compelled to work on production lines linked to at least 83 brands. Following the detention of an estimated 1 million Uighur and other Turkic Muslim minorities since 2017, the Chinese government is now exporting the punitive practices of Xinjiang’s detention camps across the country — and threatening to intertwine global manufacturers and consumers in its ongoing project of cultural genocide.

To come to our conclusions, we examined hundreds of government documents and state media reports describing the Uighur workers’ lives far from home. They have limited freedom of movement, typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organized Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances. Every 50 transferred workers are assigned one government minder, and in some cases, police officers. They are watched by facial recognition technology and a specially designed app on their phones. Government officials conduct surveillance and report on their thoughts.

Based on our information, The Post’s Anna Fifield visited a shoe factory in Qingdao producing sneakers for Nike and found that it resembled a prison, with barbed wire, watchtowers, surveillance cameras and a dedicated police station. Uighur workers at the factory, she was told, did not come on their own accord, nor could they return home for the holidays.

Even amid the covid-19 outbreak, Uighurs are still being transported to central Hunan province, an area that has been heavily affected by the virus.

Just like viruses know no boundaries, nor do the repressive policies of the Chinese Communist Party.

At one factory in eastern Anhui province, state media reports that a young Uighur woman learned to improve her Mandarin and to take daily showers that made “her long hair more flowing than ever.” At another factory — a current supplier of Apple — the workers were expected to “gradually alter their ideology” and turn into “modern, capable youth” who “understand the Party’s blessing, feel gratitude toward the Party, and contribute to stability,” according to a Xinjiang newspaper.

For each Uighur citizen transferred, the government pays a sum of money to organizers of the transfers and the recipient factories. Advertisements have been popping up on the Chinese Internet in the last year. One ad offered “batches” of Uighur workers as young as 16, promising to “deliver” them in just 15 days while setting the “minimum order” at 100 workers.

It is impossible to confirm whether every Uighur transferred under this scheme was forced to participate. However, in cases where information is available, we see disturbing coercive labor practices consistent with internationally recognized definitions of forced labor. We even found evidence that at least some Uighurs were taken directly from Xinjiang’s detention camps.

How much are we implicated in this odious project because of our consumption practices? Around our water cooler, we researchers asked one another: “How many of these brands do you own?” Some of us own products from a dozen of these companies, and shudder at the thought that the shoes on our own feet or phone in our pockets might have passed through the hands of Uighur workers who are subjected to one of the world’s most egregious experiments in mind control.

What’s happening to the Uighur people is not a local issue, but a global one that presents a new challenge for multinational companies and individual consumers.

As consumers, we must demand that companies manufacturing products in China conduct due diligence and social audits to ensure that they are not complicit in forced labor. Companies should use their leverage to investigate improper labor practices, and if any are found, seek remedial action immediately.

Nike has said that it respects “human rights in our extended value chain.” Last week, it announced that its shoe factory in Qingdao would conclude the employment of workers from Xinjiang. But by relying on the assurances of the Chinese factory to investigate and take remedial actions, Nike is avoiding its responsibility to actively protect its own supply chain. Adidas, Bosch, Marks & Spencer and Panasonic responded to our findings, denying direct, contractual relationship with factories using Uighur labor, though they were unable to rule out forced Uighur labor further down in their supply chains.

As the multinationals continue to dodge their social responsibilities, we consumers must ask ourselves: Are these products worth it when they may have been made by someone whose freedom and cultural identity are being stripped forcibly and mercilessly by the Chinese government?

Originally published by: The Washington Post on 18 Mar 2020