Their fight for fairness has a wider message
A HONG KONG FAMILY firm stood with their Uyghur staff members yesterday by playing America at its own game. They took out a lawsuit in the US courts against that country’s Department of Commerce using Western lawyers.
Shirtmaker Esquel, run by Hong Kong’s Yang family, has been blacklisted after accusations that it ran a “slave labor” cotton-picking operation in Xinjiang using Uyghur prisoners sent by governments from detention centers.
But the allegations were entirely false, according to large amounts of evidence the company has gathered.
In contrast, the evidence against Esquel appears slim to non-existent, consisting largely of allegations from the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, a militaristic Sydney-based “research group” financed by Western government sources and US and UK arms dealers.
“The Department of Commerce provided no evidence for its erroneous decision,” said US lawyer James Tysse, filing the lawsuit this week on behalf of staff at Esquel’s Xinjiang subsidiary, Changji Esquel Textile Company.
The Yang family firm’s Xinjiang operation has about 400 Uyghur team members, including almost 15 per cent who have worked there for more than 10 years.
“Because we do not discriminate based on race, gender, religion or ethnicity, our team in Xinjiang has always included Uyghurs,” the company said.
Many Uyghur staff choose to stay long-term. This makes sense, since the company pays two to three times the minimum wage, gives all staff the same promotion opportunities, and even has chefs to prepare Uyghur food in the staff restaurants.
The family behind Esquel, a spectacular Hong Kong success story, is well-known in the city. It was founded by Yang Yuan Loong, known as YL, in Tsim Sha Tsui in 1978, and promptly signed the first US-China agreement of its kind in the international garment trade.
The firm grew to be one of the biggest shirtmakers in the world, creating 100 million garments a year.
It is now run by his daughter Marjorie (highlighted in main picture at the top), a popular figure in Hong Kong, known for her civic and charity work, and also for her interest in equality for women and other progressive issues, such as sustainability.
As well as providing employment to Xinjiang people for 25 years, the company also pioneered a micro-financing system to help farmers in the largely agricultural area, once mired in poverty.
ACCUSATIONS FROM AUSTRALIA
The accusations of “slavery”, or the use of forced labor, come from ASPI, an Australian group best known for locating compounds in China by using Google Maps and alleging that they are concentration camps.
At no point did ASPI contacted the Yangs or any staff from the Hong Kong garment firm before making the accusations that resulted in it being placed on a black list that triggers seriously harmful trade restrictions.
RANDOMLY CHOSEN INTERVIEWS
The present writer has met Esquel CEO Marjorie Yang many times, and it’s hard to think of anyone less likely to use unethical labor practices.
“The use of forced labor or coercive practices is completely contrary to our founding principles and the business we have operated for more than 40 years,” the Hong Kong businesswoman said.
The company’s response to the accusations appear to be textbook examples of openness.
They invited US Commerce Department staff to visit the facilities in Xinjiang with free and open access but they did not respond.
The company then invited independent, third-party specialists in labor audits to visit the facilities in Xinjiang and conduct unstructured interviews with randomly chosen Uyghur workers. In every instance, the audits found no evidence of forced labor or coercion.
‘WE WILL NOT WALK AWAY FROM THAT RESPONSIBILITY AND COMMITMENT’
Some international firms in Xinjiang have become reluctant to hire Uyghur staff, fearing that they will be unfairly blacklisted.
This reporter met one international products buyer, an American, who says he now has to ask companies in China whether they have Uyghur staff, and he feels bad doing so—but he needs to anticipate possible negative reactions from overseas.
Xinjiang business operators to whom this reporter has spoken say that in an area of 13 million people, there are bound to be cases of friction if journalists want to seek them out, but the overall picture of the province being a nightmarish network of “concentration camps” and “slave farms” is a grotesque distortion. “You’ll find more tension between workers and officials in downtown St. Louis or Detroit,” a Hong Kong businessman says.
The Esquel team says they will not be swayed. “We will continue to focus on creating local value, supporting local development and transforming life in Xinjiang as we have done for 25 years,” they said on their website. “We will not walk away from that responsibility and commitment.”
RESUMES AND INTERVIEWS
Rather than getting “slaves” from government prisons, Yang’s team say they get staff in China the same way that they hire people in any other country, with the use of resumes and interviews.
“Esquel values and respects the dignity of all our people in Xinjiang,” Marjorie Yang said.
The suit was filed on Tuesday, US time. The US Commerce Department has not yet responded.
While the evidence appears to be on Esquel’s side, there is no guarantee that their lawsuit will free them from the US blacklist.
Judges in America will only have seen the one-sided coverage of the Xinjiang issue provided by the Western media. For example, today’s New York Times carries an article in which a campaign organized by the Chinese government to give the other side of the story about Uyghurs is “exposed” as a campaign organized by the Chinese government.
In April this year, Chinese individuals took out a lawsuit against the BBC’s John Sudworth, notorious even among foreign correspondents for his hostile reporting on the Xinjiang issue. Sudworth fled.
But his flight from justice was portrayed as yet another case of China “forcing” journalists out.
The Yang family’s fight to clear their firm’s name has wider implications for balanced coverage of Hong Kong and Mainland China, and a fairer world in which entrepreneurs can operate across borders without geo-political issues getting in the way.
Featured image: Main picture is from a TV show on Esquel in Xinjiang.
(Friday) by Nury Vittachi