“And they should be getting good quality audits, and be operating in regions where they know workers are empowered. That is just crucial if they want to deal with forced labour.”
The ABC story said Target, Cotton On, Jeanswest and Dangerfield sourced cotton from Xinjiang. But it did not allege that any of these companies were using any material allegedly manufactured from forced labour in Xinjiang.
Companies should have really strong visibility of their supply chains.
Gershon Nimbalker, director of business engagement with Stop the Traffik.
A Target spokesman said the retailer, which is owned by the conglomerate Wesfarmers, had an Ethical Sourcing Code of Conduct and took any breaches of the code, including allegations of forced labour, very seriously.
Target had identified that one of its direct suppliers “is using a small amount of cotton yarn from a mill owned by Huafu in Xinjiang province. Target is conducting a review of the situation,” he said.
A spokesperson for Just Group, which owns big-name brands including Just Jeans, said the group had “zero tolerance for forced labour” and had a 40-plus year history of global ethical sourcing.
“Just Group does not source from, and has no relationship with, any of the factories mentioned in the ABC article,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said that under the group’s commitment to ethical sourcing it insisted on workers’ rights, and it had “zero tolerance for bribery and corruption”.
Jeanswest said it wanted “to make it very clear that we do not have any cut make and trim factories that operate out of Xinjiang”.
“In regards to cotton yarn sourcing, Xinjiang is a common region for sourcing within China and we cannot rule out that a portion of our cotton may be sourced from here; we are currently looking into this to better understand the volume of sourcing, if any.”
Big W, which is owned by Woolworths, said it took the fair and ethical treatment of workers in its supply chain very seriously.
“We can confirm we have no factories located in Xinjiang, China and have not received any complaints against our suppliers,” Big W said.
Tim Costello, executive director of the Christian group Micah Australia, said he was gutted by allegations that Muslim Uighurs were being forced into factory labour.
Australian companies should be able to say “our ethical commitment to the consumer is (that) you’re not getting a cheaper product because it comes from forced labour, or from slavery”, he said.
“To be fair, sometimes it’s complex, supply chains…can be opaque. But that is your core business, and that is your core ethical commitment and the scorecard will mark you on this, are you transparent and do you keep your ethical commitments,” he said.
Consumers wanted companies to behave ethically, he said.
“You will see younger people when they’re buying a piece of clothing, they will check the brand, they will get on their phone and Google that brand and what its ethical rating is.”
Human Rights Watch has called the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang “horrific” and called on the Chinese government to allow United Nations inspectors into the region.
But an editorial in the official China Daily newspaper on Monday defended the Chinese government’s policy on Xinjiang as a way to prevent terrorism.
On Friday United Nations ambassadors from 37 countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar and Nigeria signed a letter supporting China’s Xinjiang policy, an apparent response to western diplomats criticising China on the issue in the UN Human Rights Council last week.
Australia was among 22 countries to sign a letter last week voicing concern at the large scale detention and surveillance of the Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang.
China Daily wrote that envoys from western countries “believe in the freedom of individuals”, but argued that Uighurs may “become extremists or even terrorists without being given vocational training”.
“Sometimes, people need to be organised, and being organised does not mean the loss of freedom,” the editorial said.
With Kirsty Needham
Darren is the mining and agribusiness reporter for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.