On a foggy night in early November, I attended a Walmart Christmas merchandise launch party in North York, Ont. The rooms were filled with sparkling lights, Christmas trees and beautiful displays of the season’s must-have toys: LOL Dolls, Hot Wheels and Puppycorn Rescue, among many others.
My invitation to this event for media was ostensibly to fill glossy magazine pages with gift guides and trendy decor ideas. Unfortunately for the PR firm that invited me, my years of research into the hidden cost of cheap retail has tarnished this consumer Christmas glow. As I perused the seasonal displays, my hunch was confirmed: virtually all of the products were stamped with the familiar words, “Made in China.”
You may wonder: why should it matter where a product comes from when we know it will bring joy to the loved ones on our shopping lists? Why should we be concerned about China being the manufacturer for so many of the goods in our large retail chains?
The disturbing answer? Forced labour. According to experts, forced labour is so integrated into the Chinese supply chain that it’s literally impossible to find a Chinese product that has not caused an extraordinary amount of human suffering, particularly by the Uyghur people.
The persecution of the Uyghur people is well documented. In August, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a damning report on China’s actions toward the Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim minorities, concluding that their “arbitrary and discriminatory detention… may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”
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The UN definition of crimes against humanity includes murder, enslavement, forcible transportation of a population, imprisonment, torture and rape — all of which have happened to the Uyghur people within the internment camps and factories set up by the Communist Party of China. Uyghur survivors and human rights organizations like Amnesty International have reported extensively on them.
Yet, the Canadian retail industry seems determined to pretend that nothing terrible is happening. I’ve contacted Mark’s, Loblaws and Costco to request interviews on the issue of forced labour goods, and none responded. At the Walmart event in November, I told a company representative that parents are increasingly concerned that the goods they buy for their children are ethically made. In her response, the representative focussed only on the company’s ethical practices within Canada. Canadian Tire sent me their code of conduct, which they claim prevents their suppliers from benefitting from these practices. The Retail Council of Canada issued a statement that says, in part:
“Canadian retailers are committed to operating and sourcing responsibly and don’t condone forced labour under any circumstances.… Retailers have long had programs in place to reduce the risk of labour exploitation in their supply chains, such as detailed supplier Codes of Conduct, compliance and audit programs and formal and informal industry collaboration.”
But experts assert that these codes of conduct are completely unenforceable and unverifiable. Mehmet Tohti is executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project and a Uyghur himself. In an email, he writes that more than 70 percent of the Chinese economy is made up of Communist Party-controlled state enterprises. “All economic activities in China are based on the fake, inflated or generated data from the central government,” Tohti states. “Third-party auditing, whether it’s within China or commissioned to other auditing companies outside of China, will use that vague data to complete their auditing procedures. When the official policy of the central government is to deny the existence of any forced labour in China, the whole system will align to that and will do their part to create an orchestrated show to prove the government’s position.”
Laura T. Murphy echoes Tohti’s assertion. A professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice (Sheffield Hallam University, U.K.), Murphy notes that the Uyghur region has become a centre for forced labour factories, internment camps and residential schools. “The Chinese Communist Party has intentionally moved an enormous amount of manufacturing to the Uyghur region,” she says. “They have provided incentives to companies to locate there.”
Murphy adds that Canadian companies that import Chinese goods have their “heads in the sand. They don’t want to know where their goods are coming from.”
She went on to say that “some companies will write to me and tell me that they no longer source from a particular supplier … or that their suppliers no longer source from a problematic Chinese company. I can show them in two minutes the records I used to show that sourcing was much more recent or that their suppliers are not telling the truth.”
Her presentation to the U.K. Parliament demonstrates the complete failure of the auditing process.
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Tohti is even more blunt. “Companies that are using and selling products made by forced labour are complicit in genocide. They need to remember what happened in the Nuremburg trials. There will be ample evidence of what is happening.” While his warning for retailers is dire, he doesn’t let consumers off the hook: “We have been addicted to cheap products for a long time, without asking why they are cheap. We are willing to put people into slave labour so we can have cheap goods.”
So where does that leave Christmas shoppers? Fortunately, we can take positive actions that will make a real difference:
- Purchase from local independent businesses and craftspeople. They can show that their goods are locally manufactured, you’ll be helping to grow local businesses, employ local people and support local suppliers.
- Ask where the goods are made. Try to walk away from those made in China and tell the retailer why.
- Shop second-hand. Extending the life of existing goods and clothing helps both to the planet and your bank account.
- Post on corporate social media accounts (Canadian Tire, Costco, Loblaws, Walmart, https://www.facebook.com/MarksClothing) or email the company’s CEO. Ask why they’re selling goods made by forced labour. Even if you receive no reply, your post or letter will increase pressure on companies to remedy this situation.
- Join in shareholder actions. Shareholders can demand accountability from the companies in which they invest at annual general meetings and make motions requiring companies to ensure that their suppliers are not using forced labour. Even if defeated, the motions will serve notice that this issue must be addressed.
- Examine your own investments. Ask your investor not to buy shares in companies that use forced labour, such the 82 listed by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
But perhaps the most significant action we can take is to re-examine our whole approach to Christmas. What do we really need, as opposed to what consumer culture tells us we need? We are drowning in stuff, but we are starving for experiences that connect us to our families, friends and the wider community. If we focus on that, we can truly have a memorable Christmas.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct a quote from Laura Murphy.
Rev. Christopher White is in ministry at Kedron United in Oshawa, Ont.
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