American college sportswear has been traced back to a Chinese reeducation camp

Kunshan Industrial Park, at an internment camp in Xianjing.
Kunshan Industrial Park, at an internment camp in Xianjing.
Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
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In the Xinjiang region of western China, a network of internment camps holds up to 1 million detainees, mostly Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities. The ruling Communist Party bills the camps as “education and training” centers for people “influenced by extremism.” By laboring on the production lines, Beijing claims, the detainees can work their way out of poverty, join modern China, and avoid being turned into religious radicals.

But as the Associated Press and New York Times (paywall) report in separate investigations, a growing body of evidence shows the camps are also a source of forced, cheap labor to make products such as clothing, at least some of which is exported. The AP says it has tracked “recent, ongoing shipments from one such factory inside an internment camp to Badger Sportswear,” which supplies clothing to the bookstores and sports teams of numerous US universities, such as Texas A&M, University of Pennsylvania, Appalachian State University, and many more.

According to the AP, Badger Sportswear, based in North Carolina, received at least 10 shipping containers of polyester knitted t-shirts and pants from a factory in an internment camp in Xianjing this year. But it’s unclear exactly where the items ended up or what branding they may have had. It’s also impossible to know whether a particular item of clothing was made with forced labor, illustrating how murky global supply chains can be.

The camp that produced the clothes contains 10 workshops operated by a privately owned Xianjing clothing manufacturer, Hetian Taida Apparel. The company acknowledged that its workforce includes detainees, though it said it’s not affiliated with the camps. ”We’re making our contribution to eradicating poverty,” its chairman, Wu Hongbo, told the AP.

Badger Sportswear told the AP it has sourced from a Hetian Taida affiliate for years. About a year ago the affiliate, which was not named in the story, opened a new factory in western China, though Badger Sportswear says it sent out officials to visit the facility and make sure it was up to standards.

The company’s sourcing policy “prohibits business partners from engaging in forced labor, including prison, bonded, indentured, and other forms of forced labor.” In a statement to the AP, Badger CEO John Anton said, “We will voluntarily halt sourcing and will move production elsewhere while we investigate the matters raised.” Quartz has reached out to Badger Sportswear for comment and will update this post with any reply.

The AP couldn’t confirm whether workers at the factory received pay, or were free to come and go. But a dozen people who had been detained in an internment camp, or had family or friends in one, all told the AP that factory work was mandatory. Payment varied greatly. Some were paid nothing at all. Others earned just above the minimum wage, which starts at 1,460 yuan per month (around $210) before deductions in Xianjing. Some of those forced onto the production lines, they said, previously held professional jobs that paid 10 times as much. A similar picture of life in the camps emerged from the Times’s investigation.

It seems that clothing is becoming a focus of the internment camp labor programs: Xinjiang’s provincial government announced a plan in April to attract garment and textile makers, promising subsidies to train inmates.