Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (credit: EC)

In her recent State of the Union address, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen mentioned a forthcoming proposal to ban the sale of products made by forced labour in the EU single market. Although no specific countries were mentioned, this ambition regarding human rights may concern the Chinese production of cotton by Uighur workers, a Muslim minority that sees itself as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.

There are about 12 million Uighurs living in Xinjiang, which is officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Uighurs comprised most of its population until the heavy migration of China’s ethnic majority Han began, fuelling ethnic tensions which has at points flared into deadly violence. This has resulted in a massive security crackdown and an extensive state surveillance programme violating Uighur human rights. Uighurs have been detained at camps where evidence of torture, forced labour and sexual abuse have emerged. China has denied these claims saying the camps are ‘re-education’ facilities aimed at lifting Uighurs out of poverty.

Evidence suggests that around half a million Uighur workers are being marshalled into seasonal cotton picking every year. The region accounts for more than 20% of the world’s cotton production and 84% of China’s, which is used by fashion brands worldwide. According to members of the Anti-Slavery International and the World Uyghur Congress, ‘there is near certainty that any brand sourcing apparel, textiles, yarn or cotton from the Uighur Region is profiting from human rights violations’.

‘There are 25 million people threatened or forced into forced labor. They are forced to make products, and these products will be sold in stores here in Europe. We can never accept it.’, said Ursula von der Leyen. ‘Doing business around the world is good, global trade around the world is good and necessary, but can never be done at the expense of people’s freedom and dignity’. However, EU officials said the ban on forced labour was not as strong as the previous Commission’s commitment to introduce legislation aimed at holding companies accountable for potential human rights and environmental abuse in the supply chain.

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