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LONDON – BCI has claimed its presence in China is having a “positive impact on farmers [and] their families” and the environment in response to a series of questions about heightened forced labour concerns in the Xinjiang region. “BCI is a robust, well-established and well-managed multi-stakeholder organisation with strong governance bodies and related procedures,” the cotton standard told Apparel Insider.

Addressing the question of whether China is too big to fail for BCI, it told us: “China’s 20 per cent share of Better Cotton produced worldwide reflects its position on the world cotton market. BCI Programmes are implemented globally, and we are not dependent on Better Cotton from one single country or region.”

BCI also claimed results from its investigations this season as well as from direct or indirect third-party sources, did not, “find any evidence of incidences of forced labour on farms within BCI Programmes.”

BCI’s comments follow recent reports by risk agencies including Maplecroft, which claims auditing in Xinjiang has become impossible and, just last week, the Fair Labour Association (FLA) which said the risk of forced labour in China’s textile sector is “present at all levels of the supply chain, from the farm level (for cotton and other agriculture products) to finished-goods manufacture.”

BCI also touched upon comparisons with Uzbekistan, a country which brands eventually boycotted due to concerns about forced labour in its cotton industry.

Many expert commentators claim there is now no difference between Uzbekistan and Xinjiang, with some saying that, in the latter, forced labour issues are even more endemic. In response, BCI said: “In Uzbekistan, there is clear and undeniable evidence that the Government has voluntarily mobilised parts of the workforce including teachers, healthcare professionals, and in some instances, children, to pick cotton during the harvest. These efforts have been classed as forced labour as outlined by the ILO’s core conventions on forced labour, and therefore, campaigning organisations have implemented a ban on Uzbek cotton. A critical mass of retailers and brands have signed the cotton campaign pledge to not knowingly source cotton from Uzbekistan.

“While there are similarities, the situation in Xinjiang, from BCI’s perspective, is different. To date, there is no evidence that state orchestrated forced labour is happening at farm-level, the scope within which the Better Cotton Standard is applicable.

“During the 2018-19 cotton season, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, launched an independent sustainable cotton project in Uzbekistan based on the Better Cotton Principles and Criteria, which are publicly available to whomever wishes to consult or apply them.

“We have started participating in IFC’s Sustainable Cotton Project Consultative Council as an observer member, in order to encourage multi-stakeholder dialogue. The Consultative Council is a multi-stakeholder forum in Uzbekistan including the Uzbekistan Government, relevant line ministries and local authorities.”

Forced labour in Xinjiang will be the cover story in our next magazine. To find out more see: https://apparelinsider.com/subscribe/?lid=5

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