Last week I interviewed Nus Ghani MP in an event for NextGen Public Affairs to hear more about her lobbying efforts to end trade with states complicit in genocide and ensure no UK business profits from slave-labour.
International organisations have been campaigning for years against the Chinese Government’s internment of Uyghur people in so-called ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang. However, the issue had received little political or media attention in the UK.
Returning to the backbenches in early 2020 after a 2 year-stint in Government, Nus told me she was shocked that the UK’s official position hadn’t changed. The Government still hadn’t condemned the treatment of the Uyghurs, and many UK businesses were still – although unbeknown to them – profiting from Uyghur forced-labour in the cotton fields of Xinjiang or in factories across China.
However over the past six months the situation has shot up the political agenda in the UK and is receiving the media and public recognition it deserves.
So what’s changed and what does this mean for UK businesses and the transparency of their value chains?
Since early last year Nus has been plugging away to push the issue up the agenda, even getting elected to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee with the central goal of securing a parliamentary inquiry into the issue.
In September she launched the Committee’s inquiry into the extent to which business in the UK are exploiting the forced labour of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of China. She wasn’t alone, as simultaneously the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Affairs Committee and Environmental Audit Committee took forward inquiries into relevant aspects of the situation.
Of course, concerns about the sustainability of business supply chains and the consequences of fast fashion are not new. These aren’t even the first parliamentary inquiries of their type into sustainable supply chains.
Yet the issue simply hadn’t had the political traction we’re now seeing. Undoubtedly this is in part tied up with increasing questions over our future business and trading relationship with China.
Also giving further impetus to the campaign, the Trade Bill, which lays out the future basis for UK trade deals, has been passing through Parliament over the past few months offering a significant opportunity for Nus and others to seek to ban genocide trade in law.
Nus and her colleagues may have been sanctioned by the Chinese Government for their efforts, but they have secured a lot of ground over the past year. The UK Government has sanctioned Chinese Government officials complicit in Uyghur abuse, there will be now be a Select Committee process to assess claims of genocide, and no UK Trade Deal will be signed without parliamentary security into any claims of human rights abuses by that state.
Of course, the situation in Xinjiang and actions by the Chinese Government is not just one claim of human rights abuse being highlighted by MPs and Peers to make an example of others. As the Foreign Secretary put it, it is “one of the worst human rights crises of our time”.
However, it has raised serious questions around the transparency of UK business value chains and the extent to which some are profiting from these abuses while perhaps turning a blind eye.
Nus’ Committee report strongly criticises those businesses who have minimal data beyond the top tiers of their supply chains (citing Boohoo), and recommends a blacklist of companies unable to provide evidence that they have no supply chain links to Xinjiang.
I asked Nus which business she considers an example of best practice – she hailed H&M as a leader in their efforts to improve supply chain transparency and having suspended operations Xinjiang last year. She rejected the assumption that sustainability and ethical trade has to come at a prohibitive cost.
It seems as if we are at a turning point where the highest levels of value chain transparency will no longer be a CSR ‘nice to have’ for UK businesses.
With calls for a new Government framework to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act and to tighten up business reporting and enforcement, it will be crucial for businesses to ensure that direct and indirect parts of their supply chains are free from forced labour and can be held up to scrutiny. Doing so will likely become a pre-requisite for doing business and engaging with politicians and Government.