Apple Accused of Sourcing Employee Uniforms From Factories Connected to Forced Labor
Apple is facing criticism after shipping records revealed that it sourced apparel from a Chinese company facing U.S. sanctions for using forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. The apparel was most likely uniforms for Apple Store employees.
The timing is especially poor, as Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told Congress that he would not tolerate modern-day slavery within the company’s supply chain. An Apple spokesperson told The Guardian that none of its current suppliers source cotton from Xinjiang, but didn’t specify whether it had in the past.
The sanctions against Changji Esquel Textile, a subdivision of Hong Kong-based Esquel, prohibit it from buying U.S. technology and other products as part of an effort to stop the practice of thousands of China’s Uighur minority group being forced to work in factories.
Per the BBC:
Between 2017 and 2019, the ASPI think tank estimates that more than 80,000 Uighurs were transferred out of the far western Xinjiang autonomous region to work in factories across China. It said some were sent directly from detention camps.
ASPI said the Uighurs were moved through labour transfer schemes operating under a central government policy known as Xinjiang Aid.
According to the report, the factories claim to be part of the supply chain for 83 well-known global brands, including Nike, Apple and Dell.
The report said it was "extremely difficult" for Uighurs to refuse or escape the work assignments, with the threat of "arbitrary detention" hanging over them.
It added that there was evidence of local governments and private brokers being "paid a price per head" by the Xinjiang government to organize the assignments, which ASPI describes as "a new phase of the Chinese government's ongoing repression" of Uighurs.
Esquel said in a statement that it has not, nor would it ever, use forced labo, and pointed to an 2019 international audit that confirmed that.
Apple CEO Tim Cook says he won't tolerate modern slavery, but @Apple "has imported clothes – probably uniforms for staff in stores – from a company facing US sanctions over forced labor at a subsidiary" in China’s Xinjiang," where Uighurs are persecuted. https://t.co/vDCYJwSAne pic.twitter.com/5weIQTvxOp
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) August 10, 2020
Apple first started working with Esquel in 2014, as the tech company was looking for more sustainable cotton uniforms. Apple began working mostly with Esquel’s Vietnam location.
The units of Apple uniforms were reportedly not on the sanctions list, but The Guardian hypothesized that the cotton was likely grown in Xinjiang. Apple denied this, claiming that its suppliers use cotton from Vietnam and Guangzhou, but failed to specify its exact source. The Guardian also reported that there is no Esquel record of any cotton farming in Vietnam, and Guangzhou has “no cotton farming.”
James Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown and author of “Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang,” told The Guardian that the practice of holding minorities in internment camps has “tainted the very idea of Xinjiang.”
“It is such a deeply entrenched, and broadly enmeshed system of oppression they have created, that has involved hundreds of companies in China and outside of China,” he said.
And while Esquel received clean marks on the 2019 audit, that doesn’t conclusively mean its supply chain is free of forced labor.
“They’re doing business with the province, they’re doing business with local administrations, they’re doing business with the [Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps], all of which are running concentration camps and all of which are involved in moving people in concentration camps into one kind of coerced or involuntary labor or another,” Millward added.
Cook told Congress that if Apple were to find out that its supplier was using forced labor, it would terminate the relationship immediately, and that he would be interested in working on legislation to ban forced labor in the future.
For companies like Apple and others doing business with China, extra scrutiny of and diligence on supply chains is critical.
“You have to see if any of the companies you’re dealing with are themselves dealing with Xinjiang,” Millward said. “And maybe take it, you know, two or three steps removed, because that’s how particularly the textile industry is. You go from from fiber to filament to fabric to clothing, and it’s very hard to trace all of that all along the way.”