Uyghur Forced Labour Cannot Be Ruled Out in Beijing Olympics Merchandise
As US Law Banning Forced Labour Comes into Force, IOC Refuses Dialogue with Coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labour—and Relies on China to Investigate Itself
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) should immediately disclose what, if any, specific due diligence steps it has taken to identify and eliminate any material produced with Uyghur forced labour in Olympic-branded merchandise, the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region said today. The Coalition brings together over 400 organizations from 40 countries and includes family members of those unjustly held in China’s brutal mass detention camps. The Beijing Winter Games begin on February 4.
The IOC has failed to offer credible evidence that there are no products made with forced labour in the thousands of items of Olympic-branded merchandise sold or worn in connection with the Beijing Winter Games. If the IOC is not willing to disclose such steps, then it must explain why it will not.
“The IOC cannot be allowed to let so-called neutrality override morality when it comes to slave labour,” said Zumretay Arkin, World Uyghur Congress Program and Advocacy Manager. “Olympic leaders must take responsibility for labour and human rights at a time when the reality of forced labour of the Uyghur people is now widely recognized and condemned around the world.”
The IOC’s refusal to discuss due diligence about forced labour in connection with the Games came as the U.S. Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on December 16 and U.S. President Joe Biden signed it into law on December 22. The law bans imports from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (“Uyghur Region”).
The IOC’s official sportswear uniform supplier Anta Sports is among many apparel companies around the world that source cotton from the Uyghur Region. In March 2021, Anta Sports defiantly declared: “We have always bought and used cotton produced in China, including Xinjiang cotton, and in the future we will continue to do so.” That blatant statement should have been a red flag for the IOC to meet its stated commitment to avoid forced labour. But the IOC has given no indication that it has taken any action.
The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region engaged the IOC privately for eight months in 2021 to seek information and assess assurances about due diligence steps that the IOC may have taken to ensure that Olympic-branded merchandise is not made with forced Uyghur labour. On December 21, the IOC rejected the Coalition’s proposed terms for substantive, constructive, and mutually respectful two-way dialogue.
“With one month to go before the start of the Beijing Winter Games, the icy indifference of the IOC to labour and human rights is absolutely chilling,” said Bennett Freeman, a member of the Coalition Steering Committee, co-founder of the Cotton Campaign, and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, who led the Coalition’s nearly eight months of efforts to engage the IOC. “Our patience and persistence were met with intransigence and arrogance. The global outrage that the Beijing Olympics will generate may yet disrupt the IOC enough to force its fundamental reform.”
The IOC has committed to “responsible sourcing” in its Sustainability Strategy and IOC Supplier Code and told the Coalition that “From time to time, the IOC carries out specific due diligence on suppliers deemed to represent specific environmental, social or ethical risks” and that it has “started commissioning third-party social audits.” Moreover, the IOC informed the Coalition on October 29 that “In the coming months, we will be looking at strengthening and systematising this approach by evaluating more formally the risks of our suppliers of goods and services and licensees and carrying out third-party due diligence systematically on our high-risk providers.”
But the fact that the IOC is only now “looking at” ways to carry out third-party due diligence and third-party audits is shocking in the face of the massive and pervasive use of Uyghur forced labour by Chinese authorities and companies operating in the Uyghur Autonomous Region to produce polysilicon for the solar industry and process cotton.
“The IOC has no idea whether the thousands of Olympic-branded products its corporate sponsors and other partners are selling are made with Uyghur forced labour. What’s worse, Olympic leaders apparently don’t care, as evidenced by their failure to perform and disclose meaningful due diligence,” said Scott Nova, Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium.
The IOC also informed the Coalition that “As part of the Olympic Host Contract and in alignment with the IOC Sustainability policy on workforce and sustainable sourcing, Beijing 2022 has developed a series of policy commitments, standards and detailed rules to safeguard employees’ and workers’ rights [that]… explicitly rule out forced labour.”
The IOC said that “If concrete allegations of forced labour directly related to the Games were to be raised, the IOC would hear them and address them with the Organising Committee. Following an investigation, if the allegations are confirmed we would request an immediate remediation of the issue, consider possible discontinuation of the sourcing activity, and if possible, the return and alternative sourcing of the goods.”
“Held up against stark evidence of mass incarceration, torture, and crimes against humanity affecting 13 million Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims, the IOC’s willingness to trust Beijing to investigate its own forced labour is completely delusional,” said Peter Irwin, Senior Program Officer for Advocacy and Communications at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “The IOC’s refusal to address the atrocities perpetrated by its partner, the Chinese government, is ensuring the Beijing Winter Olympics will be historic for all the wrong reasons.”
Coalition member Human Rights Watch and others have previously called for the IOC to conduct and make public human rights due diligence for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, consistent with the IOC’s responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. In February 2021, The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region explicitly “called on the IOC to articulate its human rights due diligence plan” and in April specifically insisted that “procurement of any goods or merchandise comply with the ILO core labour standards” which include no forced labour.
Yet there is no evidence that the IOC has conducted such due diligence or a human rights impact assessment—related to forced labour of Uyghurs or otherwise. Nor has the IOC disclosed any engagement with the Beijing Organising Committee—effectively the Chinese government—on forced labour or other labour or human rights risks.
The IOC’s 2020 expert report “Recommendations for an IOC Human Rights Strategy” states that “the human rights impacts that could be connected to the Games are severe.” While the IOC reports that its human rights work has been “informed” by these recommendations, there is no indication that the IOC implemented this strategy related to human rights risks and the Beijing 2022 Winter Games.
“As a sister of a victim of this genocide who is paying the price in some dark dungeon for my activism in the US, I am very disappointed that the IOC is treating Uyghurs’ lives as disposable,” said Rushan Abbas, Executive Director of the Campaign for Uyghurs. “The IOC’s disrespect for directly affected rights-holders, in this case the Uyghur people, is clearly reflected in their unwillingness to engage in reasonable dialogue. We therefore can have no confidence—nor can athletes, sponsors, or virtual spectators have confidence—that any of the thousands of items of Olympic-branded merchandise are not stained with the blood and sweat of my people.”