Rushan Abbas often wonders about her sister, a former medical doctor.
“Where is she, working for which company, which brand?” she said, to the crowd. “Every time I look at these complicit brands and each time, I see their logo. I am struck in the heart. Who is benefiting from her slave labor?”
The streets surrounding New York Fashion Week were quiet this year, as COVID-19 forced the semi-annual event to go virtual. On September 13, day three of Fashion Week, a modest group of protesters congregated on Varick Street, in front of Spring Studios, where the runway shows were held. There, a group of approximately 25 activists called upon the fashion industry and consumers to educate themselves on the origins of their clothes, specifically referring to the labor camps in China, where Uighers, a mostly Muslim ethnic group, are detained, including Rushan Abbas’s sister.
Against the backdrop of New York Fashion Week’s logo emblazoned on a wall, the demonstration involved organizers from the Campaign for Uyghurs, Uyghur Human Rights Project, Freedom United, Model Alliance, and Free Uyghur Now, with speeches from each organization. One in five pieces of cotton clothing is created with forced Uighur labor, according to the protest organizers.
A 2020 report by the Congressional- Executive Committee on China, which includes members of both the House and the Senate, revealed that as many as 1.8 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic Muslim minorities have been detained in Xinjiang. The report confirms the use of forced labor and warns that “due diligence” to avoid complicity through audits is not possible.
“Much of the world’s cotton comes at a cost much higher than the literal price indicates,” said Abbas, founder and executive director of Campaign for Uyghurs, in her speech. “More than 3 million Uighurs are detained in the concentration camps because of their ethnicity and religion,” she said, referring to an estimate Randall Schriver, former assistant secretary of defense, made in a 2019 Pentagon briefing.
In an interview, after the demonstration, Abbas said she is organizing because “not many people know how complicit they are with China’s crimes against humanity.” She chose New York to protest, because it is a place the world community looks up to, she said. She wants designers, models and consumers to know that “what’s being questioned here is not just related to the Uighurs, it’s about your human dignity, your conscience,” she said. “We are all responsible for what happens next.”
Sara Ziff, founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to fair treatment, equal opportunity and sustainable practices in the fashion industry, called the demonstration, “just the beginning.”
“We can no longer deny the reality of genocide in fashion’s global supply chains,” she said. “The Model Alliance is calling on all designers showing in Fashion Week to speak beyond the craft and creativity of their words, and instead to the underlying conditions of your source material. Are you profiting off the oppression of a whole people?”
Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, called forced labor, “central to the Chinese government’s assault on Uighur people,” in his speech, adding that mass detention and forced labor is indiscriminate. “It doesn’t matter if these people are independent farmers, professional intellectuals or successful business owners,” he said.
The effect of mass detention has impacted many aspects of Uighur life, according to Kanat, who said that young factory workers cannot get married, and children are taken from their families to state orphanages. He urged consumers and companies to “stop supporting these crimes,” he said. “The repression is not only ignored by the rest of the world, it is actively supported by companies like Nike, Zara and others.”
Spokespeople from Zara and New York Fashion Week did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement, Nike said that it is “committed to ethical and responsible manufacturing” and to “uphold international labor standards,” adding that Nike does not source material from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and that the company is strengthening their audit protocols to prohibit forced labor from their suppliers.
Andrea Kennedy, assistant professor of fashion marketing at LIM College, in Midtown, weighed in. “There have been issues with the way clothing is made and low wage workers, for all time in the apparel industry and in the fashion industry.” Kennedy brought up the use of slaves in the United States to pick cotton, and the working conditions which led fires and the death of 146 workers in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York. “Now we’re just doing the same thing in other countries,” she said.
The structure of fashion supply chains also makes it hard to account for sustainability and ethics, said Kennedy. Fashion supply chains are divided into tiers, she said: Tier zero is companies themselves; Tier one is assembly factories; Tier two is where assembly factories purchase fabrics, shoulder pads zippers, etc.; Tier three is where tier two factories buy molds, dyes, plastics; Tier four is the raw materials like plastics and cotton.
“Tier four is so far removed from that zero tier, where that brand is, that it is really hard to have transparency,” said Kennedy.
Increasing transparency for companies comes down to cost, she said. “In order to have great transparency, you either need to pay a lot more people to be boots on the ground, and that’s a cost, or you need to purchase the technology to track every one of your supply-chain partners,” said Kennedy.
Some protesters said that they attended to urge companies to change their practices.
“It’s really important to get as many people to use their powers as consumers to affect these companies,” said Toqa Badran. “We benefit as consumers because we get cheaper goods. And then those companies benefit and the Chinese government at large benefits,” she said. “Everyone who’s affiliated, everyone who’s ever bought anything, needs to like step up and take accountability.”
Kawthar Abdullah said she wants companies to take a stand against forced labor. “At a human level, no one should ever be held in internment camps based on religious ethnic, or any kind of identity,” said Abdullah. “It hurts on an even more personal level as a Muslim, because they are Muslims, and they’re being attacked for their Muslim identity.” Abdullah said she worries that people may be repeating mistakes of the past. “There is an ethnic genocide, and the world is silent.”