Nike said it was reviewing its suppliers’ hiring practices in China, after The Washington Post and an Australian think tank reported that members of the Uighur Muslim minority were making shoes for the American brand in conditions that suggested they were coerced.
Nike had been “conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of people from” Xinjiang, the statement said.
“Nike remains dedicated to ethical and responsible manufacturing and we are deeply committed to ensuring the people who make our product are respected and valued,” it said.
The Post reported last month on labor practices at the Taekwang factory in Laixi, China, which has been a Nike supplier for more than 30 years and produces about 8 million pairs of athletic shoes annually.
About 700 of the factory’s workers are members of the Uighur ethnic minority from the western region of Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has been on a campaign to strip the mostly Muslim population of their culture, language and religion.
More than 1 million Uighurs have been put through camps aimed at “deradicalizing” them, according to Chinese authorities, and have now “graduated” from the camps.
In what appears to be the latest iteration of that campaign, at least 80,000 Uighurs have been dispatched in groups of 50 to work at factories throughout the country, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote in a report published this month.
Chinese state media contains numerous reports about groups of young people being sent to work at factories where they live in dormitories and attend ideological training at “Pomegranate Seeds” schools — so called because Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants all ethnic groups to stick closely together.
On the Chinese Internet, middlemen advertise the workers like chattel.
“They will be under semi-military style management, and the staff turnover rate is low,” said one middleman who posted on Tieba, a forum like Reddit. Another notice asked: “Do you want Xinjiang Uighurs? One year contract. Government management with police stationed at factories.”
A Post reporter who visited the Taekwang factory saw dozens of Uighur workers, mostly women in their early 20s, walking around the factory area. The women were too afraid to talk, but local residents who interact with them said they did not come to the factory freely but were sent there.
While the ASPI could not confirm that the labor was forced, its report said there was clear evidence of “highly disturbing coercive labour practices” consistent with the International Labour Organization’s definition of forced labor.
When first contacted by The Post, Nike said its suppliers are “strictly prohibited from using any type of prison, forced, bonded or indentured labor.” Taekwang said that the workers offset local labor shortages, and that it was not aware of any requirements for them to undergo ideological training.
In a new statement, Nike said that Taekwang’s Qingdao facility had not recruited new employees from the Xinjiang region since last year.
Taekwang “is currently seeking expert advice on the best and most responsible approach to conclude the employment of remaining employees” from Xinjiang, Nike said.
“Taekwang has confirmed that their employees from [Xinjiang] have the ability to end their contracts at any time without repercussion, and historically many have chosen to do so,” Nike continued.
On Tuesday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) accused American companies of deliberately turning a blind eye to “horrific” forced-labor conditions in China’s Xinjiang region. This related to companies that use workers inside the region, not to labor exports like the ones to the Nike supplier.
This is a particular problem for clothing and garment manufacturers because 84 percent of Chinese cotton comes from Xinjiang, Menendez wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
“There are consistent reports that U.S. companies fail to undertake basic labor and human rights assessments in Xinjiang, in essence willfully ignoring the horrific conditions of forced labor in Xinjiang,” he wrote.
“In failing to uphold their responsibilities to vet their supply chains, these companies may be complicit in the mass repression of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups,” he said.
Asked about Menendez’s letter, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said “there is no such thing as forced labor in Xinjiang.”
“We hope certain people in the U.S. will take off their tinted glasses and keep normal economic cooperation and trade between the two countries in perspective,” Geng told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday.