Effie Caldarola: Forced labor and what we buy

One morning I discovered that a sheet on my bed had ripped during the night. I thought they were good quality sheets. How could they shred?

By Effie Caldarola

Then I did the math. I bought them 10 years ago and they were my favorites. I slipped them into the rotation far more than the other sets, probably using them well over a thousand nights. Stuff wears out.

But in this time of globalization, and with Pope Francis reminding us to remember that justice isn’t just a local issue, my sheet set took my thoughts a world away.

In China, an ethnic Muslim minority called Uighurs (pronounced “WEE-gurs”) is suffering incredible persecution, facing ethnic and cultural cleansing. Separated from their families, subjected to “re-education,” torture and rape, they’ve been herded into work camps and forced labor. Qurans have been seized and worship suppressed. It’s reminiscent of the gulags of Josef Stalin.

So what does this have to do with my desire for a new set of cotton sheets?

Bloomberg reports that many very prominent American companies are suspected of relying on forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region, where the Uighurs are detained. Many of these companies deny that they use textiles produced in the area. They insist that they do not use forced labor in their supply chains. However, it’s a tricky, complicated subject.

The Guardian reports that China is the biggest supplier of cotton products in the world. And 84% of the country’s cotton output comes from Xinjiang region. So even if a company does not have a factory in Xinjiang or purchase cotton and other textiles directly from the region, what about the suppliers who do, and who eventually produce for your favorite brand? How carefully does a big company follow this chain? Or does the bottom line often turn a blind eye to abuse?

In my closet, I note a favorite sweater, produced by a well-known American brand, with the familiar “made in China” tag. I put the sweater down, wondering if it could be related to the horrors of Xinjiang province. The next sweater I pick up is “made in Vietnam.” Is that better, or was the cotton sourced from Xinjiang province, and how careful is that American label in making sure their sources of labor are not enslaved people?

Bloomberg reports that the U.S. House of Representatives almost unanimously passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that seeks to cut imports from the region. The Senate has yet to vote on the bill.

Protesters in Hong Kong rally in support of Xinjiang Uighurs’ human rights Dec. 22, 2019. (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)

By googling Uighur camps and American retail, you can read much about this subject and find lists of American companies who may be implicated. You can also read trade group objections to the House-passed bill.

It occurs to me that a good Lenten practice would be to write to some of these companies and let them know we care about this issue. I have also written to my senators urging them to support the House bill.

On a related subject, The Atlantic had a recent article called, ominously, “Ultra-fast Fashion is Eating the World.” In 1984, the majority of clothes bought in the U.S. were produced domestically. Today, overseas cheap labor dresses us.

The result of this cheap supply: Americans buy a piece of clothing every five days on average. Cheaply made products are viewed as disposable. Mounds of discarded garments overwhelm landfills and pollute the environment.

So here’s another Lenten practice: Don’t buy clothes this season. “Shop” in your own crowded closet. Visit secondhand stores.

Learn about the Uighurs and pray for them. Take action for a world where justice trumps profit.

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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