China labour watchdogs face tough tradeoffs to keep access alive

The Better Cotton Initiative faced scrutiny over its work after partnering with Chinese firm accused of rights abuses.

Farmer in Xinjiang cotton field
The Better Cotton Initiative ceased monitoring conditions in Xinjiang's cotton industry in 2020 amid reports of widespread human rights abuses in the region [File: Reuters via China Daily]

Tokyo, Japan – When the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) launched in 2005 promising to promote the use of traceable, sustainable cotton in global supply chains, the non-profit organisation (NGO) honed in on cotton-growing regions with a documented history of human rights abuses.

BCI’s mission took it to Xinjiang, China, the homeland of the Uighur ethnic minority, where the NGO began working in 2013.

To assist its work on the ground in one of the world’s largest cotton-producing regions, BCI partnered with state-owned Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a firm human rights groups and Western governments have accused of overseeing the arbitrary detention and forced labour of Uyghurs and other ethnic minority Muslims.

Despite mounting evidence of abuses detailed in NGO reports and media investigations in 2018 and 2019, BCI continued to operate in Xinjiang until October 2020.

The non-profit’s exit came several months after the United States Office of Foreign Assets banned transactions with the XPCC over its role in “serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities.”

In a statement that has since been removed from its website, BCI, which has headquarters in London and Geneva, said the “sustained allegations of forced labour and other human rights abuses” were a factor in its departure. Since then, BCI has declined to comment on its decision to leave Xinjiang, or why it took as long as it did to act.

“BCI has once never issued a public apology, nor has the chairman ever faced the media on this,” Brett Mathews, the editor of Apparel Insider and a garment supply chains expert, told Al Jazeera.

“Where was the due diligence? Why didn’t they do any research on the XPCC and its known links with all sorts of atrocities towards the Uighur population?”

BCI did not respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.

Beijing has denied allegations of rights abuses and genocide in Xinjiang and credited its “vocational education and training centres” with reducing violent extremism and poverty.”

Tough decisions and compromises

BCI’s case is one of the most dramatic examples of the tough choices and compromises labour and human rights watchdogs must face when operating in China under what critics says is the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Xi Jinping.

Rights groups including the Fair Wear Foundation, Workers Rights Consortium, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, and Amnesty International have all found themselves no longer able to continue working in mainland China or Hong Kong.

Those that remain are increasingly subject to strict controls and oversight that risk degrading their ability to identify or address human rights issues in global supply chains.

“Since 2015, the Chinese government has been targeting and cracking down on labour groups,” Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung, a Hong Kong-based campaigner with the Clean Clothes Campaign, told Al Jazeera.

“The risk factor has, in my understanding, deterred a lot of monitoring activities.”

Border controls and other travel restrictions, which have been ramped up under Beijing’s draconian “zero COVID-19” strategy, have made it increasingly challenging for foreign observers to even enter China or access, for example, facilities in Xinjiang considered to be high-risk for forced labour.

Even digital monitoring has become challenging, campaigners say, due to new data security laws that have already impacted the availability of information from the Automatic Identification System used to track ships.

During a 19-day period in October and November, the level of shipping data available for Chinese waters plunged by an estimated 90 percent, according to market intelligence firm VesselsValue.

Pervasive surveillance that makes secure communication with workers difficult and potentially risky is another concern. Right groups have documented numerous incidents of Uighurs and Tibetans being detained for merely communicating with people abroad.

Amnesty Hong Kong
Amnesty International is among a number of rights watchdogs that have found themselves unable to operate in China [File: Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

Big brands have argued that there are ways to monitor supply chains despite the limited space for civil society and media, pointing to the role of non-profit multi-stakeholder labour monitoring initiatives in China. These initiatives, which include the Netherlands-based Social & Labor Convergence Program (SLCP), hire mostly for-profit companies like Bureau Veritas, Intertek, and SGS Global Services to assess factories and companies along a supply chain against preset criteria.

“As the largest apparel and textile producer in the world, China has naturally been one of the SLCP priority countries,” Holly Menezes, an SLCP spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.

“China remains the country with the largest share of verified assessments. In 2021, of the 4400 SLCP verified assessments conducted worldwide, 45 percent were by facilities in China.”

Besides SLCP, other prominent labour monitoring initiatives operating in China include US-based Social Accountability International (SAI), United Kingdom-based Sedex and amfori BSCI, which was created by the European Foreign Trade Association. While numerous other standards bodies exist, such as Fair Trade and the Forest Stewardship Council, these four initiatives are the most widely used among global multinational corporations for assessing forced labour risks.

“Assessments provide a strong foundation for brands and other stakeholders to take a data-driven approach to identifying non-compliances and risks at facilities within their supply chain, including on topics such as forced labour,” Menezes said.

Critics, however, argue that this model – where companies monitor other companies using voluntary criteria – has often failed to identify labour and safety risks, and is particularly ill-designed for the Chinese context, with its pervasive surveillance and meagre labour rights.

‘An [assessment] cannot address broader structural issues nor the entire business model and the context in which production is occurring,” Nana Frishling, an Australia-based business and human rights expert, told Al Jazeera.

Campaigners point to the fact that the sites of the Ali Enterprises fire in Pakistan and Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, in 2012 and 2013, respectively, had been certified as meeting labour and safety standards by Sedex and SAI partners – even though they clearly did not.

Rana Plaza
The Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh was certified as meeting labour and safety standards by International monitors before its collapse in 2013 [File: Andrew Biraj/Reuters]

“There’s well documented levels of fraud where supplier factories will, for example, clean up the factory in advance of an auditor coming – or telling the children to go hide at the back, that kind of thing,” Frishling said.

There is also evidence of Chinese authorities obstructing such inspections. The US Department of State, in a 2020 business advisory, warned companies sourcing from China that supply chain observers “have reportedly been detained, harassed, threatened, or stopped at the airport.” There are also reports of falsified records, bribes being paid to inspectors, and inconsistencies in reporting.

Asked about these concerns, amfori BSCI pointed to its Integrity Programme, which a spokesperson said “provides a comprehensive, robust and independent acceptance process for audit companies to engage with amfori BSCI activities and ensure excellence in audit quality at the audit company and auditor level.”

Sedex, which, before the pandemic, organised conferences and events in China focused on supply chain transparency and labour risks, said in an emailed statement that “we support businesses to ensure global supply chains that source from many different countries … though we do not work directly with our members to resolve forced labour and human rights sourcing risks in China.”

Social Accountability International declined to speak with Al Jazeera.

Some labour rights campaigners are concerned that SAI, SCLP, and Sedex may be making the same mistake they believe BCI did – turning a blind eye to forced labour and allowing corporations to continue sourcing cotton from China while claiming their supply chains are certified as free of forced labour.

“There are so many loopholes,” said Mathews, the editor of Apparel Insider. “They are still trying to protect their business in China, they don’t want to leave that market because it’s huge for them.”

Source: Al Jazeera