German brand clothing: cotton from forced labor?


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Status: 05/05/2022 4:00 PM

Adidas, Hugo Boss, Puma and other German textile companies sell according to research CTRL_F Apparently more cotton-containing goods from China’s Xinjiang region. People are forced to work there.

Written by Manuel Dobbenberger and Florian Jokelsberger, NDR

Scars on the wrists, head and back are the silent witnesses to the martyrdom of Arbaqit Atarbi. The 46-year-old says he was imprisoned for several months in China’s Xinjiang region and was tied up, beaten and tortured with electric shocks during this time: “Once they put me in the shower room and electrocuted me.”

Atarbay was later transferred from prison to a labor camp and forced to sew clothes there. “It was very hard work,” he recalls. He had no choice: “Anyone who did not do a good job is sent to prison. And no one wants to go back there.”

Arbet Atarbay had to sew clothes in a labor camp.

Image: CTRL_F

Suspicion of organized forced labor

It is such reports that have raised suspicions that cotton and textile products from Xinjiang are organized forced labor – for this reason, German companies have also claimed that they are no longer buying products from Chinese provinces. But search by CTRL_F She points out that clothes from German brands such as adidas, Hugo Boss, Puma and Jack Wolfskin can still contain cotton from Xinjiang.

The key to this research is the analysis of the isotopes present in cotton products. They form a pattern that reveals what part of the world matter comes from. In collaboration with Agroisolab in Jülich and the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences, the research team used this method for the first time to determine the origin of cotton in clothing. With clear results: researchers found evidence of cotton from Xinjiang in T-shirts from Puma and Adidas, T-shirts from Hugo Boss and Jack Wolfskin and a pullover from Tom Tailor.

Ethnic minorities are particularly affected

The research shows how German companies can benefit from the exploitation of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang in particular. Because eyewitness reports such as Atarbay are an expression of systematic repression. “In Xinjiang, there is a very large prison industry – that is, prisons and companies that cooperate with them and thus get cheap labor,” explains Ron Steinberg, who researches the situation of the Muslim Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. He notes a significant increase in prison sentences: “Between 2013 and 2018, the number of people imprisoned each year increased nearly tenfold.”

Rating shared by Wang Leizhang *. The former Chinese policeman knows the system of oppression. There is indeed a threat of violence during arrest, as well as during interrogation. “Everyone who sleeps will be beaten,” says Wang. After the arrest, there is a threat of forced labor: “In all prisons, inmates are forced to work, and workers earn money from it.”

Forced labor or imprisonment

Forced labor in cotton fields in Xinjiang has also been documented. Nearly 90 percent of Chinese cotton is produced there, which is about a fifth of global production. Under no circumstances, cotton grower Eyüp Enwer* reported. In some cases, up to 20 percent of the village population was sent to forced labour, and the number increased from year to year. “Harvesting cotton for eight to ten hours is hard work,” says Ayoub. “You can’t sit still, spend the day bent over, and your back hurts.”

Cotton with branded clothes: forced labor suspected

Daubenberger/F Jokelsberger/J.Johnston, NDR, May 5, 2022, 4:29 pm

Whoever refuses will face imprisonment. “I saw how 175 Uyghurs were taken to a camp because they didn’t want to harvest – they were imprisoned between 5 and 15 years for it.” Manual picking is especially important for long-fiber cotton, which grows mainly in southern Xinjiang, where many Uyghurs live. This cotton, especially in terms of organic quality, is valuable and is mainly exported to the West – and eventually also seems to end up in clothes from Adidas, Hugo Boss, Puma, Jack Wolfskin and Tom Taylor.

There is still a lot of manual work required

The Chinese government denies allegations of forced labor. This is impossible on farms because most of the cotton is harvested with the help of machines. So the research team, in collaboration with Vertical 52, examined agricultural areas in Xinjiang with satellites. The results show that about a third of the crop was hand-picked. According to a method developed specifically for this research, about half are in southern Xinjiang.

Manufacturers deny the allegations

When asked, the manufacturers confirmed their claim that they did not bring any cotton from Xinjiang. Adidas said in writing that it only buys cotton from other countries. “Based on all the information we have collected and the traceability and controls we have in place, we can say that no Xinjiang cotton is used in our products,” Puma stated.

Hugo Boss has stated that it will not tolerate forced labor in its supply chains and reiterated its statement that it does not export any goods directly from Xinjiang. Jack Wolfskin did not address the issue of Xinjiang cotton in their supply chains, but emphasized that they do not tolerate forced labor. Despite repeated requests, Tom Taylor did not comment.

But it is difficult for companies to control supply chains in China, says an auditor who has been checking suppliers in China for years. He speaks exclusively but anonymously to the research team out of fear for his Chinese employees: “It is theoretically possible, but highly unlikely, that Western companies can say with certainty that there is no forced labor in Xinjiang’s cotton supply chains.” Because: Currently, no audit firm can operate independently in Xinjiang.

*Names changed

Broadcast note: Panorama reports on this topic tonight at 9:45 PM on ARD

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