A scathing investigative story published in The New York Times December 15 is a warning to international fashion brands who manufacture in China to keep track of every step of their supply chain system to ensure they are operating ethically and legally.
According to the article, “China’s Detention Camps for Muslims Turn to Forced Labor,” American consumers who purchased items from the brand Badger Sportswear in recent months may have bought goods manufactured by Muslim detainees being held by the Chinese government in an internment camp in Xinjiang Province.
Under rules of the United States and the United Nations, forced labor is considered a type of modern slavery. It is illegal for any U.S.-based entities to import items made by forced laborers.
Despite the escalation of the trade disputes between the United States and China, China is still the largest manufacturing base in the world, so the investigation has repercussions throughout the fashion industry. Some high-profile names still manufacturing in the country include Balenciaga, Prada, Burberry, Michael Kors, and Ralph Lauren, among others.
The investigative report documented terrible working conditions of detainees who worked for one privately-owned company called Hetian Taida Apparel, which has supplied products to Badger Sportswear since April of this year. Hetian Taida Apparel confirmed their workers included detainees; however, the company denied that they are affiliated with the internment camps.
Badger Sportswear released a statement that it was not aware of the situation, and it would halt the cooperation with Hetian Taida Apparel and embark on an investigation.
Internment camps in the Xinjiang region were set up by the Chinese government about two years ago following a series of violent attacks by mostly Uighur militants that killed hundreds of civilians on the borders of Xinjiang and Pakistan or Afghanistan.
The Chinese position is that these internment camps are training centers that offer free vocational training for the Muslim Uighur population so as to eliminate poverty in the region. Many in the international community, however, have said the Muslims are being denied basic human rights.
Any company that lacks the capability to take control of its global supply chain system is exposing itself to escalating levels of legal, regulatory and reputational risks. What happened to Badger Sportswear could happen to many luxury brands.