WASHINGTON – Human rights activists, labor leaders and others on Friday called on the Biden administration to keep its weight behind the impending ban on forced labor products in China’s Xinjiang region, a slave supply chain that runs through the region. And China more broadly.
The Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, signed into law by President Biden in December, is set to take effect in June. It bans all products related to Xinjiang or certain organizations or programs that are under sanctions and relocates minority workers to the job site, unless the importer demonstrates to the U.S. government that its supply chains are free of forced labor.
It remains to be seen how strictly the law is enforced and whether it affects a handful of companies or more. A broader interpretation of the law would allow the United States to scrutinize many products imported from China, which account for more than a quarter of world production. This could be the reason for the blockade of goods at the US border, possibly delaying the supply of goods and further increasing inflation.
The law requires that a task force of Biden administration officials compile several lists of entities and products of concern in the coming months. It is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post.
“I believe there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of companies that fit the law departments,” John M. Foote, a partner in Kelly Dry and Warren’s international trade practice, said in an interview.
The State Department estimates that the Chinese government has detained more than a million people in Xinjiang over the past five years – Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Huis and other groups – in the fight against terrorism.
China has condemned the claims as “lies of the century.” But human rights groups, ex-prisoners, participating organizations and the Chinese government itself provide substantial documentation showing that some minorities are forced or forced to work in fields, factories and mines in an effort to suppress the population and bring economic growth to the Chinese. The government sees it as the key to stability.
Rushan Abbas, founder and executive director of the non-profit campaign for Uighurs, who wrote about his sister’s detention in Xinjiang, said in a virtual hearing called by the task force on Friday that forced labor had become a “profitable enterprise.” The Chinese Communist Party, and Xinjiang’s villages and towns were intended to reduce the overall population.
“The scale of the issue cannot be underestimated,” he said, adding that “the complexity of the industry” has made forced labor possible.
Gulzira Owelkhan, an ethnic Kazakh who fled Xinjiang in Texas, told the hearing that she had been imprisoned in Xinjiang for 11 months with ethnic Kazakhs and Uyghurs who had been tortured and forcibly sterilized. He spent two and a half months working in a textile factory making school uniforms and gloves for children, which his supervisors said were destined for the United States, Europe and Kazakhstan, he said through an interpreter.
It is already illegal to import goods made with slave labor. But for products that touch Xinjiang, the law will shift the burden of proof to companies, so that they have to provide proof that their supply chains are free of compulsory labor before they can allow goods into the country.
Supply chains for solar products, textiles and tomatoes have already received much scrutiny, and companies in those sectors have been working for months to eliminate any exposure to forced labor. According to some estimates, Xinjiang is one-fifth of the world’s cotton and source of 45 percent of its polysilicon, a key component for solar panels.
But Xinjiang is a major supplier of other commodities and raw materials, including coal, petroleum, gold and electronics, and other companies could face accountability once the law is enacted.
At Friday’s hearing, researchers and human rights activists complained of links to forced labor programs for Chinese manufacturers of gloves, aluminum, car batteries, hot sauce and other products.
Horizon Advisory, a consultant in Washington, claims in a recent report based on open-source documents that there are “forced labor indicators” in the Chinese aluminum sector, such as labor transfer programs and relations with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. Xinjiang is the target of US government sanctions for its role in abuse.
Xinjiang accounts for about 9 percent of global aluminum production, which is used to manufacture electronics, automobiles, planes and packaging in other parts of China.
“China is an industrial center for the world,” said Emily de la Bruy, co-founder of Horizon Advisory.
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Marriage and divorce. Faced with rising divorce rates, China has introduced rules forcing married couples to go through a 30-day “cooling-off” period before formal divorce. This measure appears to be effective in reducing divorce, but it is less likely to contribute to the demographic crisis due to declining marriages.
“Forced labor in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China is not only a serious human rights violation, but also tarnishes the international supply chain,” he said. “And it’s true across sectors ranging from solar energy to textiles and clothing to aluminum.”
The law has been the subject of intense lobbying by corporations and others, including critics who feared that a broader interpretation of the law could jeopardize US ability to fight climate change, or further shake up supply chains and increase inflation.
Congress has already allocated significant funds for law enforcement It has allocated 27 27.5 million this year to enforce the law, which is probably enough to dedicate more than 100 full-time employees to enforcing the ban on Xinjiang products alone, Mr. Fut said.
Companies and trade groups have said they are willing to comply with the sanctions but want to avoid unnecessary losses to their businesses.
Vanessa Shiara, vice president of the American Clean Power Association, which represents solar and wind companies, called on the government to issue detailed guidelines to importers on how to audit their supply chains and to use only carefully verified information to make decisions.
At the hearing, he said, “It is a serious commercial issue to hold goods for weeks or months at a time.”
Many companies are working hard to improve their relationship with Xinjiang, and some large industry associations have stated that they have forcibly removed labor from their supply chain.
But some activists are skeptical, saying the lack of access to the region has made it difficult for companies to conduct independent audits. It is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post.
For example, some companies are splitting their supply chains to ensure that goods from Xinjiang go to China or other parts of the world, not to the United States – a practice practiced by Richard Mozika, a trade lawyer at Miller & Chevalier. Chartered, under letter of law, should suffice, but “will be further reviewed in the coming months and years.”
Mr Mozika said in an interview that many companies had hoped the government would provide clear and practical guidance in the coming months on how to comply with the law, but “that expectation could be misleading.”
“I don’t think some companies expect that we’re going to get a level of clarity,” he said.