Forced labor is so widespread in China’s far western region of Xinjiang – and government control over information is so absolute – that it is almost impossible to establish whether forced labor is used in supply chains there. But here’s what we do know:
Esquel Group gins and spins cotton in Xinjiang.
In July 2020, the US government imposed trade restrictions on one of its Xinjiang subsidiaries, Changji Esquel Textile Co., citing concerns about forced labor.
In January 2021, US regulators ban all cotton from Xinjiang to enter the United States, again citing forced labor.
Since the cotton ban, another Esquel subsidiary in Guangdong, hundreds of miles from Xinjiang, has continued to export its garments to brands in the United States. But sourcing records and company statements reviewed by BuzzFeed News show Esquel’s Guangdong branch works with its Xinjiang-based cotton mills. When questioned several times, neither Hugo Boss, nor Tommy Hilfiger, nor Ralph Lauren would say where the cotton in their Esquel shipments comes from.
Esquel’s own public statements make it clear that its cotton production in Xinjiang is deeply intertwined with its apparel business around the world. The company describes itself as “vertically integrated“, meaning that it has mills for every step of the cotton supply chain: Esquel’s gins separate cotton lint from seed, and that lint is then spun into yarn in Esquel’s mills. from Esquel Guangdong factories knit and weave cotton yarn to make fabric, then use it to make garments that can be exported to the rest of the world through Hong Kong-based Esquel companies. The company owns at least two cotton ginning companies in Xinjiang, where the essential Chinese cotton is grown – but makes no public reference to owning cotton ginning facilities outside the region.
Since the start of the U.S. ban on all cotton from Xinjiang last January, at least 16 Esquel shipments have arrived in the United States for Hugo Boss, according to business records, the last in mid-December. A shipment arrived addressed to PVH, the parent company of Tommy Hilfiger, containing Tommy Hilfiger-branded products; four for Ralph Lauren; and one for Polo, a subsidiary of Ralph Lauren. Guangdong Esquel, along with other Esquel companies, is still listed as a supplier in Hugo Chiefthe most recently published supplier list. PVH had included Guangdong Esquel on its list of suppliersas well as Esquel’s subsidiaries in Vietnam and Sri Lanka, but in late December – after BuzzFeed News asked for comment – PVH published a updated version of his list, and no Esquel subsidiary was there. No Esquel companies appear in Ralph Lauren’s latest list, released in November.
Hugo Boss said in a statement that it contacted Esquel, and the company responded that “all of our specifications and standards, including respect for human rights and fair working conditions, have been and are being met.” Hugo Boss also said his own audits at Esquel’s production facilities found no evidence of the use of forced labor.
PVH and Ralph Lauren did not respond to requests for comment.
In response to a list of questions, Esquel said she had never and would never use forced or forced labor. He added that he follows all national import and export laws and does not sell products that are prohibited in specific jurisdictions.
Asked where it sources cotton from other than Xinjiang, Esquel gave no details, saying only that it sources from “most major cotton producing countries in the world”.
Esquel’s shipments raise questions not only about whether these brands continue to sell products that use Xinjiang-grown cotton, but also about whether the US ban is truly enforceable.
“Cotton is grown in Xinjiang, but then sold to warehouses, processors and suppliers all over China,” said Laura Murphy, professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at the University. Sheffield Hallam, who conducted research on forced labor in Xinjiang. And then it travels as raw cotton or yarn and fabric to the rest of the world. “Every time it moves, its provenance becomes more and more obscured. There are many ways to track it, but so far most companies don’t seem invested in knowing where their cotton comes from. raw.
A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that under U.S. law, importers must exercise “reasonable care” to ensure their supply chains are labor-free. strength. Asked what constitutes “reasonable care,” the spokesperson said businesses are encouraged to “familiarize themselves with applicable laws and regulations” and work with the agency to protect consumers from “harmful and counterfeit imports.” “.
As part of its campaign targeting Muslims, the Chinese government has implemented work programs in which Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities are forced to work in farms and factories. The United States has called the campaign genocide and has exerted increasing pressure on the Chinese government, including a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The United States has continued to intensify trade bans during this period: The United States banned cotton and tomato imports from the region in January 2021, but last month Congress passed a law requiring all goods from Xinjiang to be stopped at the border on suspicion that they are made with forced labor, place the burden of proof on importers.
The region has long been one of the main sources of cotton for international companies. China is currently the first leading cotton producerwith over 87% of it from Xinjiang. Research shows that forced labor in the region is not limited to factory work – there is also evidence of forced labor in the cotton harvest in southern Xinjiang.
Xinjiang’s cotton ban has become a flashpoint in the wider US-China diplomatic row, with the Chinese government, as well as Chinese consumers and celebrities, pressuring international clothing brands so that they continue to source supplies from the region as a sign of patriotic support.
Human rights groups welcomed the ban but were skeptical of its full enforcement. They say forced labor by Uyghurs and other majority Muslim minority groups, supported by government programs, is so widespread in Xinjiang that it is nearly impossible for companies sourcing there to ensure that their suppliers don’t use it. The political sensitivity of the issue, combined with the government’s other repressive measures targeting minority groups, has made it even more difficult for foreign companies to audit their supply chains..
The Better Cotton Initiative, an industry group that promotes sustainability by auditing its supply chains, completely stopped its reviews in Xinjiang in October 2020, citing “an increasingly unsustainable operating environment”. Five companies did the same.
Esquel is the world’s largest manufacturer of woven cotton shirts, supplying major brands with over 100 million each year, which is worth the company over $1.3 billion in annual revenue. Esquel operates two cotton gins in Xinjiang and three spinning mills, where cotton is processed into yarn. BuzzFeed News was able to geotag the three spinning mills in Xinjiang and the garment factories in Guangdong, by matching images of these facilities on The Esquel site with satellite images and street level images from Baidu Total View and confirming their locations. The book Esquel produced to celebrate the company’s 40th anniversary describes how its spinning mill in Turpan prefecture in Xinjiang was set up specifically to supply factories in Guangdong. In 2018, the book adds, Esquel’s investment in Xinjiang was $100 million, including charitable donations. The company did not respond to questions about whether this supply route has changed.