The Chinese regime’s treatment of Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim groups in the province of Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity, says a long-awaited report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It describes as “credible” allegations of torture, including rape and sexual violence, discrimination, mass detention, forced labor and widespread surveillance. Multiple reports over the past five years have documented human rights abuses in the far-western province. These include the arbitrary detention of at least 800,000 people, and possibly millions. Meanwhile, former detainees have testified about being forced to work in textile factories, producing goods possibly supplied to foreign companies. 

In January 2021, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he believed the Chinese government was committing genocide in a “systematic attempt to destroy Uyghurs.” But this latest report, published just minutes before midnight on High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s last day in office, comes with the imprimatur of the United Nations. It is no longer possible for anyone – including the many companies that continue to source products from Xinjiang – to claim plausible deniability.

Companies implicated in Xinjiang labor

Xinjiang is China’s largest region. Along with mining resources such as coal, gas, lithium, zinc and lead, it produces about 45 percent of the world’s polysilicon, a key component in photovoltaic solar panels. It also produces the vast majority of cotton (85 percent is a commonly cited number) for China’s textiles and garment manufacturing industry.

A September 2018 report from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, published estimates of the numbers detained in Xinjiang – between tens of thousands and a million. The following month the Chinese government finally acknowledged the existence of what it called “vocational training centers.” But it justified these as necessary to counter “terrorism” and “extremism.” The latest UN report leaves no doubt large-scale arbitrary detention has occurred. Attempts to pass off camps as vocational or training centers are simply not credible. In addition to the possibility of goods sourced directly from Xinjing being made with slave labor, this new UN report also notes the “labor transfer schemes” that force people from Xinjiang to work elsewhere in China. These transfers mean goods produced in factories throughout China may be tainted with modern slavery. 

2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified 83 Chinese and foreign companies that allegedly benefit from the use of Uyghur workers outside Xinjiang. The list featured adidas, Amazon, Apple, BMW, Calvin Klein, Dell, Google, H&M, Hisense, Hitachi, Huawei, Lacoste, Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, Nike, Nintendo, Sony, Victoria’s Secret, Volkswagen, and Zara

Where to next?

The UN report calls on the Chinese government to release those who have been arbitrarily detained, and to investigate the allegations of human rights violations. This is like asking a fox to guard the hen house. What is needed is international action and pressure to force change. The UN Human Rights Council, composed of representatives from 47 member states, should be spurred by this report to start a comprehensive investigation, in line with the obligations of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This should also be a catalyst for individual nations to do more to stamp out modern slavery from supply chains, ensuring goods produced with forced labor – in China or elsewhere – cannot be imported. 

This also provides a clear signal for anyone doing business with China (not just Xinjiang) on the need to conduct adequate due diligence to ensure they are not benefiting indirectly from human rights abuses, including technology companies that sell surveillance and security products to China. Until there is broader access and independent verification of working conditions in Xinjiang, business should now assume that goods connected with this region are tainted with modern slavery.

Justine Nolan is a Professor of Law and Justice and Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)

After being signed into law in December, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (“UFLPA”) took effect this week. The law, which officially went into force on June 21, creates a rebuttable presumption that any goods that were “mined, produced, or manufactured, wholly or in part, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” were made using forced labor, and bars their importation into the U.S., unless the importer can produce documentation within 30 days that meets the “clear and convincing evidence” standard in order to qualify for an exception.

Direct imports into the U.S. from Xinjiang have fallen significantly in light of enduring reports of detention camps in the Xinjiang region in northwest China where ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are reportedly forced to “learn Chinese and memorize propaganda songs” and to work as part of a sweeping “re-education” campaign. The UFLPA could, nonetheless, have sweeping consequences for the fashion industry given its breadth, as well as the extent to which apparel manufacturers rely on cotton from the Xinjiang region. After all, the law applies not only to products shipped directly from Xinjiang, but also to shipments that come from other countries but that contain products made from cotton (and other raw materials) and/or labor tied to Xinjiang. 

This stands to make the applicability of the law greater given the fact that “a wide range of raw materials and components from [the Xinjiang region] find their way into factories in China or in other countries, and then to the U.S.,” according to the New York Times.

From a purely-cotton-perspective, the potential impact of law is striking. The U.S. imported about $9 billion worth of cotton goods from in 2020, according to former Executive Assistant Commissioner Office of Trade, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Brenda Smith, as previously reported by the AP. In terms of the Xinjiang region, alone, it is responsible for 85 percent of China’s cotton, and an estimated 20 percent of the global cotton supply by the Worker Rights Consortium. “Virtually the entire [global] apparel industry” – high fashion and luxury names, included – “is tainted by forced Uighur and Turkic Muslim labor,” the labor rights monitoring organization told the Guardian  last summer, due in large part to the difficulty that comes with tracing the origins of garments and their composite parts in multi-national brands’ sweeping supply chains.

Now that the UFLPA is firmly in place, Steptoe & Johnson LLP’s Jeffrey Weiss and Claire Schachter suggest that companies engage in the following initial steps … 

Evaluate the effectiveness of the existing company-wide supply chain due diligence system for assessing and mitigating forced labor risks – including g., all internal and independent third-party risk assessment/auditing systems; supplier code of conduct monitoring and enforcement; engagement with direct and indirect suppliers; forced labor risk training, etc. – and determining whether the individual components and due diligence system as a whole are likely to satisfy the CBP Guidance/UFLPA Strategy guidance and what modifications/additional processes, if any, may be needed;

Develop detailed supply chain maps for products imported into the United States in order to identify and assess the risks of any links to Xinjiang or listed entities/facilities/products and develop mitigation strategies;

Develop an efficient approach for gathering and preparing necessary supply chain documentation for potential submission to CBP in the event any shipment is detained and the company seeks to demonstrate the shipment is outside the scope of the UFLPA or that it qualifies for an exception to the rebuttable presumption; and

Monitor developments on UFLPA implementation, including additional guidance from CBP, likely to be released over the coming months.

Over the past five years, a number of signals indicate that significant changes may be coming to the fashion industry in terms of regulations in Western Europe and the United States. In the U.S., fashion brands have existed in a stable relatively low regulatory environment for decades. Many laws and regulations intended to champion the safety of the consumer have been enforced with an undercurrent of caveat emptor – or in other words, that buyers are responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made. Examples of this can be found in various labelling laws and marketing regulations, which require fashion brands to disclose fiber content and country of origin, and prohibit false advertising. 

The U.S. government has carefully balanced the need for regulation with competition and a desire for free-market capitalism. As a result, laws address specific issues not the system as a whole, which means that most laws do not address the macro-level generational imbalances that have developed in the apparel industry over the last 50 years, including environmental and social justice-related issues. For instance, while the federal government has passed domestic labor laws, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act, all of which have implications for fashion manufacturing, many fashion brands’ manufacturing and production takes place overseas in countries where no equivalent environmental or labor protections exist, and where manufacturing goods at the lowest prices possible is the most significant factor to consider. 

Beyond this, the workings of modern brands have become so sophisticated that it is not uncommon for companies to send textiles or unfinished goods to different countries for an additional step in the manufacturing process with the sole aim of avoiding unfavorable quotas and tariffs.  As the Wall Street Journal reported in February 2020, when the Trump administration increased tariffs on goods from China with the idea that it would promote manufacturing in the U.S., manufacturers simply opted to send products elsewhere for a last small step to change the country of origin before shipping to the U.S.

Even within the borders of the U.S., federal wage and hour laws are often rendered ineffective when manufacturers subcontract the little remaining cut and sew work to companies that take advantage of undocumented immigrant labor pools. Numerous examples have been documented in California involving popular budget and fast fashion brands where retailers avoid liability by arguing that they cannot be responsible for what they – as the retailer and not the manufacturer – cannot control. 

And not an isolated practice, the many loopholes that exist in the U.S. have been utilized by fashion brands in other western first-world countries, as well. 

What are the signals? 

As with many fundamental changes throughout U.S. history, consumers have provided early warning signals – and in many cases, the impetus for change – to brands. In the past five years, alone, brands have witnessed the rise of Gen-Z, a powerful, young consumer group that already makes up approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population, and 32 percent of the world’s population. When combined with Millennials, these two groups make up well over half of the world’s population, and while they generations differ from one another in many ways, both Millennial and Gen-Z cohorts are diverse, well-educated, and active in connection with an array of issues, particularly those in the environmental and social justice spheres. They use digital platforms to gather, advocate, and activate around these issues, and have called for transparency, environmental responsibility and social accountability from brands and governments in the U.S. and around the world. 

Signals are also coming in the form of new government initiatives that are underway in Europe, and to a lesser degree in the U.S., which indicate that fashion industry regulations and the larger regulatory environment is, indeed, shifting. 

The pandemic has not only ruptured the apparel industry’s supply chain, it also laid bare the global environmental and social issues that the industry has long ignored. Specific events, such as the collapse of Bangladeshi garment factory building Rana Plaza in 2013, have sparked backlash – and demand for change – from the public. Yet, there have been few – if any – major movements toward accountability on a systemic level. The voluntary Bangladesh Accord, for instance, brought about a certain level of response from western fashion brands producing in Bangladesh, but it expired on May 31, 2021, and while it was subject to a 3-month extension, it has not been renewed since. All the while, problems with working conditions and quality inspections, and the enforcement of safety and fair pay measures have endured (even when the Accord was in effect) due to a lack of support from local government and an unwillingness of fashion brands to use their leverage to change the existing systems. 

Progress does appear to be afoot elsewhere, which could ultimately have an effect on the industry as a whole, as the EU is poised to make some significant changes as it prepares to implement new reporting and corporate governance directives in furtherance of the Sustainable Corporate Governance initiative. The proposed changes require directors and executives of brands operating within the EU to shift from the more limited short-term financial outcomes and measures to long-term outcomes and measure that include the environment, human rights, and social impacts along their supply chains. The resolution – which was adopted by the European Parliament in March 2021 – also contemplates expanding the definition of stakeholders to include employers, environmental organizations, and organizations along the company’s supply chain. Significantly, the new model includes liability for organizations and directors for noncompliance. 

As part of a more extensive climate bill, France passed a law requiring a “carbon label” to be included on garments and textiles to help inform consumers about the impact of their purchases. This law follows closely on the heels of an “anti-waste” law passed in 2020 by the French government that prohibits the destruction of excess inventory and samples, among other things. 

Meanwhile, in Germany, the “green button” label law passed in June, thereby, requiring companies to meet a minimum of 26 social and environmental standards – including supply chain reporting and responsibility points – in order to use the label. While there are some areas, such as farming and processing of textiles, that are not covered by the German law, a number of textile and apparel companies are proceeding through the testing process under the law. 

And finally, in the U.S., the California Garment Worker’s Act, commonly known as SB62, was signed into law in September, with support from fashion brands like Reformation, Saitex, Eileen Fisher, and Mara Hoffman, among others. Aimed at improving working conditions in America’s largest garment center, the Act eliminates the piece-rate wage system that has been long-employed by the global apparel manufacturing industry and that has been heavily criticized by garment workers and advocacy groups as providing easy avenues for wage theft. 

Looking ahead

With the publication of the United Nations latest climate report indicating that climate change is accelerating at a rapid pace and that human actors are the cause, fashion brands need to move sustainability considerations to the forefront. Increased regulation in the fashion industry and beyond is likely, as climate change becomes a more immediate and existential consideration. Sustainability considerations should include human and environmental impacts. These factors require a long-term horizon and a new set of metrics beyond speed-to-market and the financial bottom line, and new measures of success are possible with the rise of Benefit or B corporations, for example, which have been adopted by 37 states in the U.S. with legislation pending in 4 more states. 

The fashion industry thrives on change and newness, and while quick and expansive change is required, the creativity and innovation that is born of necessity has been met by brands and designers time and time again in the past. And the growing majority of young consumers and our planet will tolerate no less.  

Melissa Gamble is an Assistant Professor in the Fashion Studies Department at Columbia College Chicago, where she teaches Trendspotting, Law for Creatives: Fashion, and Professional Practice. 

Union drives have suddenly become hot news. In a closely watched November 29 decision, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Amazon had committed serious violations of federal labor law during a union campaign at a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. In the decision, the NLRB attacked Amazon’s “flagrant disregard” for election rules, saying it “essentially hijacked the process.” The online retail giant won the union vote, held earlier this year, by a 2-1 margin but will now be forced into a do-over election. Meanwhile in Buffalo, New York, baristas at Starbucks voted to unionize on December 9, making them the coffee chain’s only unionized workforce in the United States in what has been touted as a “watershed” moment.

The organizing drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama by the Retail, Wholesale Department Store Union from January to March 2021 was one of the most closely watched union campaigns in decades. It generated media coverage of Amazon’s anti-union behavior and even arguably helped revive the so-called “labor beat” in newsrooms after years of languishing.

The NLRB decision provided negative headlines for Amazon. “Amazon made ‘free and fair’ Bessemer union election ‘impossible,’ labor official rules,” ran the headline of the Alabama news site Al.com. The Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post ran with: “Labor board calls for revote at Amazon warehouse in Alabama in major victory for union.” Even if it were to win the second ballot without violating the law, Amazon is highly sensitive about negative media, and company officials will likely loathe any coverage of another high-profile union election.

Labor rights go mainstream

The NLRB order itself was arguably less interesting – despite its huge potential significance at Amazon – than the fact that it resulted in lengthy articles in several major media outlets. Over the past year or so, organized labor has seemingly entered the mainstream again. It follows decades of apparent dwindling interest in union drives in the public sphere. A Google Ngram – which charts the use of terms in publications – shows a decline in the appearance of “unionization” and “union drive” from the late 1970s to the late 2010s. This decline correlates with the growing weakness of unions over that period: Unions represent only 10.8 percent of American workers today, down from 20 percent four decades ago. 

Amid this decline has come a recent wave of positive press for unions. It corresponds to almost record-high rates of public approval in unions. In fact, at 68 percent, support for unions is at its highest level since 1965. In addition, most Americans think union decline has hurt working people.

Labor law reform

The issue of labor rights has seemingly garnered the nation’s attention, and growing awareness of the issue could have an impact on efforts to improve the legislative environment for unionizing. A recent poll found that 59 percent of respondents supported strengthening labor laws through proposals such as penalizing companies that retaliate against workers trying to unionize and eliminating “right-to-work” laws that allow employees to benefit from union contracts without paying dues.

In the past, a lack of public awareness has helped torpedo labor law reform campaigns. In 2009-2010, during the campaign for the Employee Free Choice Act, it was rare to encounter anyone without a professional labor interest who had ever heard of the legislation, which attracted only lackluster support from the Obama White House and died in the Senate

At present, the Biden-supported legislation aimed at strengthening the right to choose a union, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (“PRO Act”), is firmly on the back burner despite support from a majority of voters. In the face of opposition from Republicans and three Democrats, the legislation is seen as a long shot in the Senate, which historically has been the graveyard for labor reforms. The PRO Act might similarly die there, although pro-union advocates hope that meaningful financial penalties for employer violations will at least make it into the $2 trillion Build Back Better bill. For the PRO Act to become a live proposition, it would likely need to convert its popular support into pressure on members of Congress.

This is the only way, in my view, to achieve meaningful change and make unionizing easier. Headlines that focus on the coercive power that big corporations like Amazon exert over workers participating in elections could go some way to bolster support for union drives

Unions are set to continue to be a talking point in the national media with the Starbucks vote. The coffee chain had been engaged in what was been described as “aggressive” anti-union tactics ahead of the vote, including forcing employees to attend mandatory anti-union meetings. Although it involves only a few dozen workers, the Workers United-SEIU union victory at Starbucks in Buffalo is seen as one of the most important labor organizing victories in several decades.

Corporate America has employed brutal anti-union campaigns for decades. What has changed, from my perspective, is that such activities are now seen as newsworthy – at least when the companies involved are household names. This coverage provides a stark contrast with past media coverage, which often depicted unionized workers as “overpaid, greedy and undeserving of their wealth.” In the words of a New York Times article on Nov. 7, 2021, the “media loves labor now.”

Talking union

In addition to Amazon and Starbucks, in recent months an expanding number and variety of employees have been talking about forming unions at their own workplaces. In the past few months alone we have seen mediatech and museum workers form unions and either stage or threaten strikes. Coverage of the union campaign at Amazon is one reason talk of unionizing is seemingly spreading. But there are other factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, which has spurred numerous labor fights – big and small – and safety struggles by Amazon warehouse workers and Amazon-owned Whole Foods workers. Meanwhile, the advent of social media has made it easier to create buzz around pro-union campaigns, such as the recent “#Striketober” hashtag campaign.

Organizing, it appears, can be contagious – under the right conditions. 

It is not yet clear that unions and their allies can capitalize on this apparent newfound public attention and convert it into increased membership levels or changes in legislation. But we are at a unique moment in U.S. labor history. The question is, will unions take advantage of the increased media attention – and the negative headlines for high-profile companies attempting to quash workers’ rights – and spur a new era of labor activism?

John Logan is a Professor and the Director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)

Finding good employees has always been a challenge – but these days it’s harder than ever. And it is unlikely to improve anytime soon. The so-called quit rate – the share of workers who voluntarily leave their jobs – hit a new record of 3 percent in September 2021, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The rate was highest in the leisure and hospitality sector, where 6.2 percent of workers quit their jobs in September – but retail was not too far behind. In all, 20.2 million workers left their employers from May through September. 

Companies are feeling the effects. In August 2021, a survey found that 73 percent of 380 employers in North America were having difficulty attracting employees – three times the share that said so the previous year. And 70 percent expect this difficulty to persist into 2022. Observers have blamed a wide variety of factors for all the turnover, from fear of contracting COVID-19 by mixing with co-workers on the job to paltry wages and benefits being offered. 

While the current resignation behavior may seem like a new trend, data shows that employee turnover has been rising steadily for the past decade and may simply be the new normal employers are going to have to get used to.

The economy’s seismic shifts

The U.S. – alongside other advanced economies – has been moving away from a focus on productive sectors like manufacturing to a service-based economy for decades. In recent years, the service sector accounted for about 86 percent of all employment in the U.S. and 79 percent of all economic growth. 

That change has been seismic for employers. A majority of the jobs in service-based industries require only generalizable occupational skills, such as competencies in computing and communications, that are often easily transportable across companies. This is true across a wide range of professions, from accountants and engineers to truck drivers and customer services representatives. As a result, in service-based economies, it is relatively easy for employees to move between companies and maintain their productivity.

And thanks to information technology and social media, it has never been easier for employees to find out about new job opportunities anywhere in the world. The growing prevalence of remote working also means that in some cases employees will no longer need to physically relocate to start a new job. Thus, the barriers and transition costs employees incur when switching employers have been reduced. 

Greater options and lower costs to move mean that employees can be more selective and focus on picking jobs that best fit their personal needs and desires. What people want from work is inherently shaped by their cultural values and life situation. The U.S. labor market is expected to become far more diverse going forward in terms of gender, ethnicity and age. As such, employers that cannot provide greater flexibility and variety in their working environment will struggle to attract and retain workers. 

Employers now have a greater obligation than in the past to convince existing and would-be employees why they should stay or join their organizations, and there is no evidence to suggest this trend will change going forward.

What companies can do to adapt

It has been estimated that the cost to the employer of replacing a departing employee is on average 122 percent of that employee’s annual salary in terms of finding and training a replacement. This means that there is a large incentive for businesses to adapt to the new labor market conditions and develop innovative approaches to keeping workers happy and in their jobs. 

A May 2021 survey found that 54 percent of employees surveyed from around the world would consider leaving their job if they were not afforded some form of flexibility in where and when they work. Given the heightened priority employees place on finding a job that fits their preferences, including on the ESG front, companies need to adopt a more holistic approach to the types of rewards they provide. It is also important that they tailor the types of financial, social and developmental incentives and opportunities they provide to individual employees’ preferences. 

And it is not just about paying workers more. There are even examples of companies providing employees the choice of simply being paid in a cryptocurrency like bitcoin as an inducement. While customizing the package of rewards each employees receives may potentially increase an organization’s administrative costs, this investment can help retain a highly engaged workforce. 

Managing the new normal

Companies should also plan on high employee mobility to be endemic and reframe how they approach managing their workers. One way to do this is by investing deeply in external relationships that help ensure consistent access to high-quality talent. This can include enhancing the relationships they have with educational institutions and former employees. For example, many organizations have adopted alumni programs that specifically recruit former employees to rejoin. These former employees are often less expensive to recruit, bring access to needed human capital and possess both an understanding of an organization’s processes and an appreciation of the organization’s culture. 

The quit rate is likely to stay elevated for some time to come. The sooner employers accept that and adapt, the better they will be at managing the new normal. 

Ian O. Williamson is the Dean of the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine. (This article was initially published by The Conversation.)