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These artists and activists want the EU to speed forced labour ban

A worker at a textile manufacturing plant, as seen during a government organised trip for foreign journalists, in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 2021.
A worker at a textile manufacturing plant, as seen during a government organised trip for foreign journalists, in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, April 2021. Copyright AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
Copyright AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
By Isabel Marques da Silva
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The law is good, they say. But EU consumers might also have to change their behaviour and take a closer look at what they consume.

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Artists and human rights activists this week called on the European Union to speed up legislation against forced labour. 

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN agency, this form of modern slavery affected around 27 million people globally in 2021.

Fashion is one of the industries most reliant on these workers.

Designer Louise Xin highlighted the issue with a fashion show for members of the European Parliament. 

“I think that art can move people in a way that politics can't. It is a very direct, heart-to-heart, performance that I always try to do. I really believe that the best way to get change is to change ourselves," she told Euronews after the event on Tuesday.

The anti-forced labour campaigner and Sakharov Prize fellow — the EU's highest distinction for human right work — is one of the civil society voices that the legislators wanted to hear, now that they are beginning to analyse the proposal by the European Commission on prohibiting products made with forced labour on the EU market, presented last September.

The legislative work and public opinion awareness campaigns should go hand in hand, Xin said.

"If we want to change the world, we have to start with ourselves first, by being more conscious about the way we behave, the way we work, the way we use our platform, and also our ability to take responsibility."

The Asia-Pacific region has the highest number of people in forced labour (15.1 million), according to the ILO. Although the majority of forced labour takes place in the private economy, some is imposed by states.

One of the most debated cases is in China’s western Xinjiang region. Forced labour in cotton fields and textile factories are part of the measures imposed by the Chinese government on members of minority groups, especially Muslim Uyghurs.

"The Chinese government intentionally put more than one million people, annually, into so-called vocational trainings and calls it poverty alleviation programmes," researcher and activist Jewher Ilham, the daughter of imprisoned Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, the 2019 Sakharov Prize laureate, told Euronews.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Tomoya Obokata, confirmed in a report last August, that "it is reasonable to conclude that forced labour among Uyghur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing has been occurring in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China."

As Forced Labor Project Coordinator at Worker Rights Consortium, Jewher Ilham has been working on data that includes interviews with people that witnessed the circumstances of the workers.

"I have learned that they work more than 12 hours, do not get paid a penny and go through all types of abuses, from gender-based sexual harassment to constant surveillance, separation from their family members and even the basic right to get a meal was a luxury for them, oftentimes all day they would get a half glass of water," she said.

Clothes factories in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkey have also been accused of this practice. Mining, agriculture and services are other industries in which abuses are reported.

Under the EU's proposed legislation, companies that want to sell products on the bloc's market will have to carry out due diligence to ensure no forced labour was used at any point in the manufacturing process. The Commission meanwhile plans to assist them with a new database of forced labour risks based on civil society investigations.

Considering the human rights impact that forced labour has around the world, these two activists hope that members of the European Parliament will strengthen the planned legislation's provisions.

“I am very hopeful, if the law is enforced very rigorously, and (that) the terms introduced in the legislation are effective and strong. For example, it needs to include transparency on import data and demands for high-level diligence," Jewher Ilham said.

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According to the Commission's proposal, member states' authorities will have to "order the withdrawal of the products already placed on the market, and prohibit to place the products on the market, and to export them" if forced labour is found to have been used. Companies will also be required to dispose of the goods.

For Louise Xin, regardless of what is out here in the market, consumers need to revise their behaviour.

"Humans have been wearing clothes forever, we have been producing it in totally different ways and we have shown different levels of respect for the materials and the stuff we have in our lives. I think it's a matter of changing our hearts and our values as well".

The proposal has been referred to the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection, and the rapporteur appointed is the Portuguese Maria-Manuel Leitão-Marques, from the S&D political group.

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