Saturday, May 25, 2024

Fashion retailer faces boycott amid allegations of Uyghur forced labor in China

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Chinese online fast-fashion retailer Shein, known for its affordable clothing globally, has become a target of a boycott campaign.

As Muslims worldwide celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, Chicago-based human rights organization Justice for All has called on Muslim women to boycott Shein, alleging it is involved in the forced labor of Uyghur Muslims in China.

The rights group said last week on the social media platform X:

A jilbab is a full-length, loose-fitting, head-to-toe garment worn by some Muslim women that also covers the hands.

Arslan Hidayat, head of the Save Uyghur campaign, says Shein’s alleged use of forced labor exacerbates oppression of the Uyghur people.

“It is crucial for Muslims to use their consumer power to protest against the use of forced labor and to demonstrate solidarity with the Uyghur community,” Hidayat told VOA. “It is incumbent upon us to prioritize ethical consumption practices and advocate for justice for the Uyghur people.”

Beijing denies that any forced labor exists in Xinjiang.

According to a Shein spokesperson, the retailer has a zero-tolerance policy for forced labor.

“We take visibility across our entire supply chain seriously, and we are committed to respecting human rights. To comply with U.S. law, we require our contract manufacturers to only source cotton from approved regions,” the company spokesperson told VOA in an emailed response.

Concerns surrounding Shein’s sourcing practices extend to its use of Xinjiang cotton. Bloomberg’s laboratory tests conducted in November 2022 revealed that Shein’s clothing contains fibers sourced from Xinjiang cotton, which is prohibited in the U.S. under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, enacted in June 2022.

The law prohibits imports from Xinjiang and goods manufactured by Uyghurs allegedly coerced into working for minimal wages, unless companies can demonstrate the absence of forced labor.

Despite U.S. bans on Xinjiang imports, Shein’s shipments often evade scrutiny through the de minimis rule, which exempts packages under $800 from customs inspections, enabling them to enter the U.S. without thorough examination.

Bipartisan leaders of a congressional committee focused on the Chinese Communist Party have called on the Biden administration to enhance efforts against imports linked to Chinese forced labor, urging closure of trade loopholes utilized by e-commerce giants such as Shein and Temu.

According to Yalkun Uluyol, a research consultant in Istanbul who researches China’s forced labor practices, the U.S. needs a more comprehensive entity list and more sanctions.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection has put companies on an entity list to ban imports to the U.S. market. However, there is a need for a more inclusive list of companies that have documented evidence of forced labor,” Uluyol told VOA.

Uluyol said the measures taken by the Chinese government in Xinjiang are nominally aimed at poverty alleviation but are actually a forced labor program. He said that under China’s “newly introduced anti-espionage regulations, one cannot even ask for supplier information from a company based in China.”

“Adding this to the online censorship and lack of transparency, it is challenging to have enough information about the supply chain, not to mention the complicity of companies in forced labor,” Uluyol said.

Hidayat noted that despite Ramadan being a month of sacrifice and spiritual reflection, many Muslims purchase prayer clothes from Shein during this time.

“Shein is a popular clothing brand founded in China for North American consumers. Particularly amongst Muslim communities, they are consistent customers because of its cheap prices for hijabs, abayas and jilbabs,” Hidayat said.

Shein has been promoting its products through social media influencers, including Muslims.

During Ramadan, which ended Wednesday in most countries, some Muslim YouTubers showcased Islamic clothing options from Shein, in partnership with the brand.

VOA reached out to some for their perspectives on Justice for All’s boycott of Shein, but they have not responded.

Established in 2012 and backed by California-based Sequoia Capital and China-based IDG Capital, Shein has evolved into a fast-fashion giant targeting Generation Z consumers outside China.

In 2019, the company moved its headquarters from mainland China to Singapore and operates in more than 150 countries and regions.

The Financial Times reported in March that Shein’s total sales reached $45 billion last year, and its 2023 profit nearly tripled from 2022 to more than $2 billion. Its closest competitors, H&M and Zara, made $820 million and $580 million, respectively.

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