A parliamentary committee has called for stricter enforcement of modern slavery law, after concluding that many UK companies are showing ‘willful blindness’ to the potential use of slave labor from the Xinjiang region of China.
The Trade, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee said in a report released Wednesday that there was “compelling evidence” that the companies were “complicit in forced labor by Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”
More than a million Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in China, are known to have been sent to detention centers since the crackdown began in 2017.
The committee reached out to 15 companies, some of which were featured in a 2020 report from an Australian think tank claiming they were supplied by Chinese factories that used prison labor.
While all the companies confirmed that they did not source products directly from Xinjiang, “none could definitively guarantee” that some of the raw cotton did not originate there, according to the report. Xinjiang produces more than four-fifths of Chinese cotton.
The deputies said they were “appalled” by the confession. “Many companies have claimed to have strong procedures to prohibit human rights violations while not undertaking the necessary and basic due diligence procedures to know that their supply chains are not involved in the work. slaves or abuse against minorities, ”the report concludes.
Marks and Spencer, one of the companies that submitted evidence to the committee last year, said on Wednesday it was now sourcing cotton through the Better Cotton initiative.
“Ethical and sustainable sourcing is at the heart of how we do business and the promise we make to our customers, which is why we do not source cotton from Xinjiang,” said Richard Price, General Manager. of the company for clothing and the home.
The committee also urged the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to “do more to meet its human rights commitments, especially with regard to companies with ties to China”.
“The department has shown little sign that it is taking proactive or meaningful leadership in investigating UK trade links with forced labor and other human rights violations,” he said. he declares.
In response, Beis said forced labor was “one of the most despicable practices in the world and the government will not stand for it.”
He said the UK was the first country to require companies to report on how they tackle modern slavery, adding that “we are considering expanding this to some public bodies and introducing financial penalties for organizations that do not comply ”.
The committee said the Modern Slavery Act, the UK’s main legislative tool to tackle abuse in supply chains, was “outdated and has no teeth” and was ” disappointed by the government’s refusal to commit to a clear timetable for making changes. “.
The Ethical Trading Initiative, whose members include M&S, John Lewis, Next, Primark and Asos, said it welcomed the report: “Documented abuses [of Uighurs] are intolerable and odious; no company should allow its activities to support them in any way ”.
He added that responsible companies “should be supported to overcome challenges such as opaque supply chains and constraints to freely conduct independent audits, as is the case. [in Xinjiang]”.
“We also welcome the appeal to the government to accelerate and strengthen its plans to further develop the modern slavery law,” he concluded.
The tone of the report also reflects a broader hardening of attitudes towards China among British politicians. Nusrat Ghani, one of the Conservative MPs on the committee, co-sponsored an amendment in January aimed at preventing the UK from signing trade deals with countries found guilty of genocide. The amendment won strong opposition support and was narrowly rejected.