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Uighur exploitation slammed as 'modern day slavery'

December 15, 2020

A new report has accused China of pressuring hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims to pick cotton in the province of Xinjiang. Activists have claimed major Western fashion brands are complicit in the abuse.

In this 2006 file photo, workers are dealing with collected cotton in Xinjiang, China
In this 2006 file photo, workers are dealing with collected cotton in the Chinese province of XinjiangImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Muslim tells story of internment

China's treatment of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region came into the spotlight again after a new report found evidence indicating Uighur laborers are being forced to pick cotton by hand.

The research was published by the US-based think-tank the Center for Global Policy and was reviewed by the BBC as well as German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

An estimated 570,000 workers from three Uighur regions were mobilized to cotton picking operations in 2018, the report found, citing online government documents.

The transfers took place under the Chinese government's "coercive" labor training scheme that involves "military-style management."

Muslim tells story of internment

"It is impossible to define where coercion ends and where local consent may begin," wrote Adrian Zenz, the researcher who found the documents.

Major fashion brands, including Nike, Adidas, Gap and others have come under fire by rights groups for using cotton-sourced from China. The Xinjiang region produces over 20% of the world's cotton — making it a major player in global textile supply chains.

Not the time for 'business as usual'

Dolkun Isa, the president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, urged companies not to support China's human rights abuses.

"The link between modern day slavery and the genocide itself cannot be separated," he said. "It is not [the] correct time to do business as usual."

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Isa, a world leading authority on China's policy of detaining ethnic minorities including Muslim-minority Uighurs and Kazakhs in the province of Xinjiang, also called on Western governments to do more.

"We haven't seen any real action to stop this Uighur genocide," Isa said, adding that European countries in particular have not taken "concrete action."

He noted that although the International Criminal Court (ICC) declined to take on a genocide complaint against China — other international bodies and organizations where Beijing is a member can "take action politically" and legally.

China has come under intense international criticism over its policies in Xinjiang, where rights groups say as many as 1 million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps.

Beijing said that the heavily guarded centers are educational and vocational institutes and that all who have attended have "graduated" and gone home.

DW's Biresh Banerjee and Michelle Stockman contributed reporting.