Some of the worlds biggest brands implicated in forced labor claims of the Uyghurs…

It has recently come to light that many of the world’s largest international apparel brands and retailers are profiting from forced labour in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang. In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has detained an estimated 1-3 million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps, where they have been subjected to torture, sexual assault, and forced labour. In a letter published by a coalition of more than 180 rights groups, it is noted that roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton and/or yarn produced in Xinjiang. Amazon, Nike, adidas, H&M, and Sketchers are among the 180+ corporations implicated. 

This discovery has spurred discussions surrounding Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which has become one of the most important acronyms in the business world in the 21st century. Essentially, CSR is a business model which extends the common corporate responsibilities to the general public. These responsibilities span environmental, ethical, economic, and social expectations. Recently, some of the world’s largest corporate names have moved to emphasize CSR as a crucial aspect of business operations across their global supply chain. However, the fact that many of these corporations which claim to champion CSR have allegedly profited from gross human rights abuses against the Uyghurs raises major questions about the future responsibilities of multinational corporations (MNCs) and CSR.

Although the concept of CSR has existed since the industrial era, it emerged substantially onto the radar of states, non-governmental organizations, and civil societies in the mid-1980s. This rise occurred alongside the massive growth of MNCs as they began to significantly alter the nature of global production. As MNCs grew in numbers, it became difficult to develop credible systems to hold them accountable for unethical supply chain practices, so CSR emerged as a viable normative force to influence corporate behaviours on a global scale. Today, governments and NGOs alike are promoting CSR initiatives to ensure MNCs are held accountable, because of the outright absence of official international governance over MNCs. Specifically, these proposals seek to highlight the social and environmental impacts of MNCs’ global supply chains.

While the notion of CSR has become increasingly important and popular in the 21st century, it is plagued with a lack of accountability and enforcement, which greatly hinders its success. Often, the nature of the global market allows MNCs to evade national jurisdictions. Additionally, a lack of comprehensive legal responsibilities between parent and subsidiary companies allows MNCs to get away with irresponsible and potentially calamitous industrial practices. This is reflected in the alleged use of coerced Uyghur labour by the aforementioned MNCs, each of which rely on countries in the global south for their supply chains. Without proper accountability mechanisms, it remains extremely difficult to enforce social and environmental standards. This calls for a radical re-thinking of the way we look at CSR.

Currently, the Global Compact is the most ambitious and successful effort to create and uphold normative standards for CSR thus far. It was launched in 2000 by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and political scientist John Ruggie. The compact is voluntary and comprises 10 principles, and has been highly successful in providing global CSR guidelines for MNCs. One thing that sets the Global Compact apart from other CSR regulation attempts is that many of the world’s largest MNCs, including Nike, Shell, and British Petroleum played a role in the negotiations. This signalled a promising potential shift in corporate culture on a global scale. 

Although CSR has in recent years been brought to the forefront of corporate agendas, there remains justified skepticism of whether MNCs will successfully uphold these standards. The discovery of forced Uyghur labour in the supply chain’s of big corporate names suggests there are very legitimate grounds for these fears – there’s clearly a lot of work yet to be done. Despite the history of MNC’s entailment of unaccountable and profit maximizing behaviours there must be space created for critical analysis of their evolving role as powerful social actors on the global stage. MNCs are not merely confined as objects of CSR, but they also have the ability and responsibility to create and enforce CSR standards themselves. Today, MNCs are increasingly weighing the economic and reputational cost of noncompliance. To a heightened degree, decisions of MNCs are being considered in the context of normative core values, social expectations, impacts on host countries, and global benefits. 

As we enter a new era, MNCs are taking on greater positions as social actors with accompanying social expectations than ever before. And with the help of the internet and civil society it is becoming imperative to radically rethink the role of MNCs in CSR, in hopes to transcend traditional concepts of business models and identities. The global community must continue to shed light on human rights violations, and environmental degradation caused by MNCs and their subsidiaries while holding them accountable in order to solidify ethical precedents of CSR in which neglect and greed are not tolerated. 

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Lilly Callender

Lilly graduated from UBC with an International Relations and Economics degree. She grew up in rural Ontario on the territory of Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples. She is the daughter of a farmer and...

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