The greatest human rights abuse of the modern era is taking place in Xinjiang, China. UK companies are profiteering from these human rights atrocities. Consumers are unaware that they are complicit by buying clothing made with cotton from Xinjiang and sold on the high street. The Government has failed to act and do what any reasonable Government would do.
Erbakit Otarbay – Case owner – My Story
I was held in a Uyghur detention camp by the Chinese state. My crime was watching illegal videos about Islam and installing WhatsApp. In detention, I was subjected to forced labour in clothing factory. I am taking the British Government to court because of their ongoing failure to ensure products produced with Uyghur forced labour and enslavement do not enter the UK. You can see coverage of my story in the Mail on Sunday here and on Sky News here.
My name is Erbakit Otarbay. I was born in 1973 in Qaba County, Xinjiang, China. Ethnically, I am a Kazakh. In 2009, I moved to Kazakhstan for work, and permanently emigrated there with my family in 2014.
In May 2017, I returned to China to visit my family – my father required surgery. My passport was confiscated at the border by Chinese authorities. When I tried to return to Kazakhstan, the authorities refused to return my passport. I found a job in an iron ore mine because I needed to send money home to my wife and children.
Two months later, I was interrogated by the police. The officers questioned my motives for moving to Kazakhstan and asked whether I prayed. I was criticized for having WhatsApp on my phone. They said I had violated the law by watching illegal videos and having illegals apps on my phone.
I was detained and taken to a centre where I was starved. Over 98 days my weight dropped from 98kgs to 71kgs. I complained and was beaten unconscious.
I was then transferred to a camp. I was forced to attend an education centre. We were divided into groups according to ethnicity. I was made to study the Chinese language, politics and history.
In March 2018, I was suddenly returned to prison. The guard ordered me to call my wife and tell her to bring the family to China. They said I would remain in jail if they didn’t return. I explained that my family were already Kazakhstani citizens and could not come.
I was returned to the camp in November and told that I would no longer be studying, but instead working in a factory making clothing. Normally we were not shown the brand of the clothes because these were stitched by the companies’ own staff.
On the afternoon of 23 December 2018, I was suddenly released to my parents’ home, under house arrest. I could not sleep that night because for the first time in a long time I entered a room without an iron barrier. I went outside the next morning and was excited to see bright sunlight. Finally, on 22 May 2018, I was allowed to return to Kazakhstan.
When I was released, I was ordered not to tell anyone what had happened, otherwise there would be consequences for my parents still in China. Since my release, I have exposed these things through YouTube. Now when I call my parents, they don’t pick up.
THE PROBLEM IN XINJIANG
Unfortunately, my experience is widespread. The UN has concluded there is evidence of torture in Xinjiang. The European Parliament has described the detention of more than one million people in Xinjiang as “the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic minority population in the world today”. In April 2021, the House of Commons voted to declare that “Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in [Xinjiang] are suffering crimes against humanity and genocide”
Chinese government documents show that the overarching purpose of repression in Xinjiang is to counter “terrorism” and “extremism”. However, terrorism and extremism are conflated with minority religious and cultural identities. The Chinese Government is conducting a deliberate program of social engineering. They require minority citizens to shed their cultural heritage and language. Those that do not submit to indoctrination are often imprisoned.
Signs of “extremism” can include quitting smoking or drinking, rejecting radio and TV, having too many children, resisting cultural activities such as singing competitions, wearing a veil or beard, or downloading WhatsApp. Some detained individuals are simply told their name is on a list or that a quota had to be filled.
As in my case, forced labour is widespread in Xinjiang.
The UN found “extensive and credible evidence of forced labour programmes targeting Uyghur and other economic minorities”. There is evidence of forced labour in the garment industries in Xinjiang. It is likely that hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities have been forced into cotton picking.
THE UK's RESPONSE
There is credible evidence of forced Uyghur labour in production chains supplying international brands. The Xinjiang region accounts for over 20% of the world’s cotton production. China is the largest producer and exporter of yarn, and the largest producer and exporter of textiles and apparel.
It is difficult to determine the extent to which apparel is shipping directly from Xinjiang to the UK. In 2019, the value of exports from Xinjian to the UK was approximately £130 million, a proportion of which were textile products. That does not account for textile products entering the UK via intermediary manufacturers in other parts of China or in other countries. Recently commissioned supply chain analysis confirmed that there is a high likelihood that several high street brands are selling items made with Xinjiang cotton.
The UK Government recognises there are “widespread and systematic human rights violations in Xinjiang” and growing evidence of “gross human rights violations” including “extensive and credible evidence of forced labour programmes targeting Uyghur and other economic minorities.
However, they appear unwilling to take any further actions. The Foreign Secretary announced a package of measures to help ensure British organisations are not profiting from these human rights violations in Xinjiang. However, the Government is reluctant to consider a ban on the import of Xinjiang cotton. This is despite both the US and the EU implementing or proposing legislation to ban the import of cotton and other goods produced or manufactured in Xinjiang.
I NEED YOUR HELP!
I believe the UK Government should be doing far more to prevent the import of goods that have been produced or are linked to forced labour of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has the legal power to ban imports of cotton goods from Xinjiang.
BUT I NEED YOUR HELP TO DO THIS!
My aim is to take legal action to challenge the ongoing failure of the Secretary of State for International Trade, Rt Hon Kemi Badenoch MP, to impose any import restriction on cotton from Xinjiang or take some other appropriate measure to ensure that products produced with forced labour and enslavement do not enter the UK.
I have instructed a team of lawyers, led by Jason Coppel KC, who have now written to the Secretary of State to ask her to address these failings. The UK Government can and should be doing more to stop the abuse of Uyghur’s and other ethnic minorities in China.
I initially need to raise £5000 to seek the advice of my legal team on what further action should be take in the light of the Secretary of State’s response. If she does not impose a ban I will need to begin litigation and raise further funds.
Please give whatever you can to help me support those trapped in detention centres in Xinjiang.