US lawmakers seek to ban Xinjiang-made products over forced labour

Lawmakers say forced labour is interwoven into Xinjiang’s economy. (Reuters pic)

WASHINGTON: Lawmakers in Washington have proposed a ban on most imports from China’s Xinjiang region, charging that goods produced by Uighur forced labourers were easily making their way into the United States.

The US already bans products made through slavery, but with rights groups saying as many as one million Uighurs and other minorities are held in camps in Xinjiang, lawmakers said forced labour was interwoven into the region’s economy.

“These practices in Xinjiang are one of the world’s largest human tragedies. It remains unimaginable, frankly, that this is happening in 2020,” Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican sponsor of the bipartisan measure, told reporters on Wednesday.

Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat who leads the Congressional-Executive Commission on China – which looks at human rights – said that witnesses, surveillance photos and leaked documents all showed the existence of forced labour.

“We know that many US, international and Chinese companies are complicit in the exploitation of forced labour involving Uighurs and other Muslim minorities,” McGovern said.

“Audits of supply chains are simply not possible because forced labour is so pervasive within the regional economy,” he said.

The act would ban the import of any goods from Xinjiang unless US Customs and Border Protection has “clear and convincing evidence” that no forced labour was involved.

Uighur activists say that China is conducting a massive brainwashing campaign in internment camps aimed at eradicating their culture.

Beijing says the camps are “vocational education centres” teaching Mandarin and job skills to steer “students” away from religious extremism.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said at a regular press briefing Thursday that the US should “stop using the human rights issue to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

Xinjiang cotton reaches world

The commission also released an accompanying report Wednesday said it had seen “credible reports” that goods involving forced labour have come into the United States, including textiles, cell phones, computer hardware, shoes and tea.

It listed a number of companies that allegedly benefited from forced labour, including fashion brands Calvin Klein and H&M, beverage giant Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup.

The Fair Labor Association, a collaborative that aims at protecting workers’ rights, said this week it was “deeply troubled” by reports of forced labour in Xinjiang and asked its affiliates to look at alternative sourcing options.

The association covers companies that were also listed as touched by forced labour from Xinjiang, including shoemakers Adidas and Nike.

One major source of concern has been cotton, as Xinjiang – like the American South two centuries ago – supplies the world.

Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, which monitors factories, said that China had made a concerted effort to turn the region into a global hub for cotton and yarn.

Of the 10 billion garments imported each year into the United States, around 20% are believed to contain at least some material from Xinjiang, Nova said at a panel of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

Xinjiang cotton “feeds not just garment factories in China but factories around the world,” Nova said.

“For apparel brands and retailers, the risk of complicity in forced labour is enormous,” he said.

The Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, if approved by Congress, would also require the secretary of state to produce a report on whether coerced labour is taking place and outline steps to combat it.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticised China’s treatment of minorities Wednesday as he released the State Department’s annual report on human rights.

“The CCP’s record in Xinjiang is the stain of the century,” Pompeo said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.