Is there forced labor in your t-shirt?

There has long been a suspicion that cotton in top fashion brands has been harvested under forced labour in the remote province of Xinjiang in western China. For years, the communist party systematically oppressed minorities such as the Uyghurs. Our satellite analysis proves that in the Kashgar region, 96 percent of the cotton fields were harvested by humans, not machines. This is where the high-quality cotton for export grows. And that's where most of the internment camps are located. This research has been nominated for the German Reporter Prize.

Nine time zones and more than 5,000 kilometers separate Berlin with its shops full of sports and luxury brands, from the Chinese region of Xinjiang. And yet the places are connected: in north-west China, cotton is grown, harvested and processed. According to this investigation, the yarn used is found in clothing by German fashion brands: Adidas, Hugo Boss, Puma, Jack Wolfskin and Tom Tailor.

In itself, this would not be a problem if there were no suspicion that the cotton from Xinjiang is obtained through forced labor. In the Chinese region, President Xi Jinping's government has for years created an industrial system of repression consisting of labor camps and prisons. In particular, members of Muslim minorities work hard for the Chinese economic miracle. Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and others who, from Beijing's point of view, endanger the unity of the People's Republic.

USA criminalizes cotton from Xinjiang

Because of these allegations, the USA has criminalized the import of cotton products from Xinjiang since January 2021. At the time, German companies such as Hugo Boss, Adidas and Puma had given assurances that they did not purchase any cotton from the region - or that they no longer wanted to do so in the future. But how credible are such claims given that one fifth of the world's cotton comes from Xinjiang?

According to the Chinese government, there can be no forced labor in cotton fields because most of the harvest is done by machines. Most recently, state television reported that more than 85 percent of field work was mechanized. The report is accompanied by aerial photos of harvesters rolling across the seemingly endless plantations of the Tarim Basin.

A detailed analysis of our satellite data, on the other hand, suggests that the figures from the Chinese government have been embellished. To do this, we examined the entire cultivation area of ​​Xinjiang. An area four times larger than Germany. The analysis was based on the images taken by the Sentinel-2 satellite, which also regularly flies over Xinjiang on behalf of ESA.

In the first step, we determined exactly where in Xinjiang cotton is grown. The key to this came from visual cues during sowing in spring 2021. We compared the results with statistical data from the Chinese government's official yearbooks. We then analyzed the patterns by which the fields changed color during the autumn harvest. A rapid change from white cotton to brown soil is indicative of machine harvesting. Slow thinning, on the other hand, indicates laborious harvesting by hand.

The result: According to satellite analysis, just over a third of cotton in Xinjiang was picked by hand in 2021. Much more than the Chinese government claims. In total, we surveyed 2.7 million hectares, just over 900,000 of which were hand-harvested. That's pretty much what Turkey and Australia are harvesting together. Both countries are among the ten largest cotton producers in the world.

The proportion of hand harvest is particularly high where most Uyghurs live: in the south of Xinjiang, around the city of Kashgar. According to satellite analysis, around 96 percent of the cotton there is picked by hand. This is also explosive because the majority of China's long-fibre cotton, which is considered to be of particularly high quality and is therefore exported, grows in this area.