By Kieran Guilbert
LONDON, Jan 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British
retailer Marks & Spencer on Wednesday became one of the
first major brands to back a drive to stop forced labour in
cotton and garment sourcing from China's Xinjiang region.
M&S signed a call to action by The Coalition to End Forced
Labour in the Uyghur Region - consisting of more than 300 civil
society groups - to cut ties with suppliers in China that profit
from the forced labour of the ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims.
The United Nations estimates China has detained at least 1
million Uighurs and other minorities in camps in Xinjiang, where
many of them are said to be put to work in textile factories.
A U.S. think-tank the Center for Global Policy has said at
least 570,000 people were forced to pick cotton by hand under a
labour programme targeting ethnic minority groups in the region.
China has denied mistreatment and said the camps offer
vocational training and help to fight terrorism and extremism.
M&S said it did not work with any supplier in or source from
Xinjiang but publicly supported the call to action to "help play
its part in driving meaningful change at scale".
The vast western province - home to about 11 million ethnic
Uighurs - produces about 85% of China's cotton and 20% of the
global supply, which is used by fashion brands worldwide.
"When it comes to sustainable and ethical clothing, we can
only achieve real change at scale by working with others," said
Richard Price, managing director of M&S Clothing & Home.
Anti-slavery organisations welcomed the announcement by M&S
and urged other global retailers to follow suit. U.S. clothing
company Eileen Fisher last year was one of the first to sign up.
Some brands have privately backed the appeal and should soon
go public with their support, said Chloe Cranston, business and
human rights manager at Anti-Slavery International, a charity.
"Other big companies are close to committing, and we hope
M&S' public statement will push them over the line," she told
the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While most brands say they do not have relationships with
factories in Xinjiang, their supply chains are likely tainted by
cotton picked by Uighurs that is exported across China and used
by other suppliers, according to campaigners and researchers.
Several clothing giants, from Gap Inc to Zara owner Inditex,
said last year that they did not source from Xinjiang, but could
not confirm their operations were free of cotton from the area.
Anti-Slavery International and the French labour rights
coalition Collectif Ethique sur l'etiquette have urged
governments to make firms liable for abuses in their supply
chains, saying well-meaning words fell short of action.
(Reporting by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the
world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)