No one can say under what conditions a garment was made, whether, for example, toxic substances were found not removed in the water during dyeing or whether children sewed pants, blouses and jeans. Anyone wishing to buy textiles whose manufacture respects minimum ecological and social standards therefore theoretically has the possibility of moving towards certifications and labels. According to the Seal Clearness Portal launched by the federal government, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is one of the high-quality road signs. It meets all the minimum requirements in the social field and has particularly high requirements in the areas of credibility and the environment. There are over 12,000 GOTS certified companies around the world.
Anyone who buys textiles with the seal, however, cannot rule out that forced laborers were involved in their production: according to a groundbreaking study by human rights organization ECCHR, which the SZ received, several companies from Xinjiang region in northern China are certified according to GOTS standard. A spokesperson for GOTS talks about two companies certified on request. The checks carried out by the audit firms revealed “no irregularities”.
There were already indications of forced labor in the region in 2018
The Xinjiang region is one of the major poles of world textile production. One fifth of the world’s cotton is harvested here, which is why many processing companies have set up shop here. However, the Chinese state is massively violating the human rights of Uyghurs in the region, locking up members of the ethnic minority in re-education camps and is said to force hundreds of thousands of people to work in the cotton fields during the cotton season. harvests. In January, the US government imposed an import ban on cotton from Xinjiang over suspicions of forced labor.
The first indications that forced laborers could be used in the region’s fields came nearly three years ago. In April 2019, the Fair Labor Association also highlighted the risks of forced labor. In December 2020, the organization banned all of its members from sourcing raw materials, operating supplies or finished products from the region. The Chinese government denies the allegation of forced labor.
Various textile companies, notably in Germany, have recently reduced their textile supply chains in the region. At GOTS, it says: Certified companies are not allowed to use fibers if there are “irrefutable gross violations” of International Labor Organization labor standards during their extraction. This includes forced labor.
Objective testing is not possible in the region, according to TÜV Süd
To ensure compliance with standards, GOTS relies on testing, referred to in the industry as audits. Specialized companies, announced or not, inspect production facilities. In order to assess the human rights and labor situation, they address the workers. The freedom of expression of employees is therefore essential for an objective assessment of labor relations. Some testing companies consider that this is no longer possible.
The world’s five largest auditing companies, including TÜV Süd, announced in September 2020 that they would no longer offer inspection services in Xinjiang because a reliable audit could no longer be guaranteed due to law enforcement actions. and the establishment of a police state in the Region. According to TÜV Süd, no social audit orders have been accepted to date in the region. Other testing companies, on the other hand, are still active in the region.
GOTS relies on their evaluation. You must “rely on the proven skills, knowledge and experience of our respective independent and accredited certification bodies and their certification decisions,” it states. The certificates of the two GOTS certified enterprises in Xinjiang were issued by Control Union. At Control Union Germany, it is said that the Chinese sister office and the head office in the Netherlands are responsible. The subject is “high priority” and “is currently the subject of an in-depth investigation by our headquarters”.
More recently, audits have only been performed virtually
Sabine Ferenschild of the NGO Südwind has serious doubts about the informative value of audits in the Xinjiang region. As of February 2020, to their knowledge, audits have only been carried out by virtually all testing companies. If it is difficult to obtain information from employees on the subject of forced labor in the context of state repression, it seems impossible in virtual audits. GOTS relies on statements from certifiers who “cannot be on site”.
GOTS certification is also a subject in a working group set up specifically for the Xinjiang region within the Alliance for Sustainable Textiles. In the working group, the state, businesses and civil society are looking for ways to improve production conditions. You don’t know if GOTS-certified textiles from Xinjiang will hit the European market, says Jürgen Janssen, head of the textile alliance. However, several working group participants consider it necessary for GOTS to withdraw from the region.
The textile alliance was founded after the worst disaster in the history of the textile industry, the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh, in which more than 1,130 people died. The auditors played a dubious role: the factory had collapsed, although employees from various testing companies had gone and left. The same is true of other Asian textile factories which suffered serious accidents. The credibility of the audits has suffered greatly.