The Impact of the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act on China and US Foreign Policy

Avishi Patreya,

Research Member,

Internationalism.


Chitrika Grover,

Research Member, Internationalism



The United States’ House of Representatives has overpoweringly passed the ‘Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act’, to ban imports of goods manufactured in the alleged forced labour camps of the Uyghur Muslim community in the Xinjiang autonomous region of China. The bill was passed in the House of Representatives in September this year, by a majority of 406-3 votes but it is still pending in the Senate to further be forward by the Trump Administration for the President’s assent in order for it be enacted as a law. Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act is being considered as the first national legislation anywhere in the world enacted to enforce Human Rights standards to end the import of goods made with forced labour.

The Uyghurs are the Turkic speaking Muslim minorities from the Central Asian Region, occupying the most parts of the Xinjiang autonomous region of China. The region, as the name suggests, works in autonomy and self-governance but is still considered to be in a tough and stringent control of China’s communist party government. China’s President Xi Jinping has overseen a hardliner approach towards Muslim minorities living in Xinjiang, especially the Uyghurs.[1] In recent years, the government has installed sophisticated surveillance technology across the region, and there has been a surge in police numbers.[2] According to various statistical reports, it is estimated that around one million Uyghurs have been detained in what China calls ‘vocational training centres’. These are purpose-built detention centres which resort in gross human rights violation including custodial deaths and forced labour. The Xinjiang region is China’s one of the largest cotton-producing region and is very crucial for China’s foreign trade. It is also one of the most important parts of China’s Belt and Road initiative. Banning products manufactured in the Xinjiang region of China that too by a country like America is challenging and deficit for China’s foreign trade policy.

The Act has included all of its findings by the U.S.’ Congress in its Section-2. It indicates towards China’s established extrajudicial mass internment camps that have been arbitrarily detaining as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups subjected to forced labour, torture, political indoctrination and severe human rights abuses. The evidence of alleged forced labour in the Xinjiang region of China has been confirmed by the testimony of former camp detainees, satellite imagery, and official leaked documents from the government of the People’s Republic of China as part of a targeted campaign of repression of Muslim ethnic minorities.

Department of State of the U.S. in its Trafficking in Persons Report found out that “Authorities offer subsidies incentivizing Chinese companies to open factories in close proximity to the internment camps, and local governments receive additional funds for each inmate forced to work in these sites at a fraction of minimum wage or without any compensation.”[3] It was also found that the products reportedly produced with the forced labour include textiles, electronics, food products, shoes, tea and handicrafts. Companies that have been suspected of directly employing forced labour or sourcing from suppliers that are suspected of using forced labour are Adidas, Badger Sportswear, Calvin Klein, Campbell Soup Company, Coca-Cola Company, COFCO Tunhe Company, Costco, Esquel Group, Esprit, H&M, Hetian Taida, Huafu Fashion Company, Kraft Heinz Company, Litai Textiles, Nike, Inc., Patagonia, Inc., Tommy Hilfiger, Urumqi Shengshi Huaer Culture Technology Company, Yili Zhuo Wan Garment Manufacturing Company, and Zhihui Haipai Internet of Things Technology Company. In America, it is illegal to import goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part by forced labour and such products are subject to exclusion or seizure and may lead to a criminal investigation against the importer.

The policy enacted by this Act of the United States,

  • The USA bans the import of all the products manufactured, wholly or in part, by forced labour from China, particularly from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The act also recognize the mass internment camp used to perpetrate human right abuses against the vast Muslim minorities.

  • The congress finding recognizes that the products are produced with forced labour, the inability to differentiate between them creates difficulty. Further, the bill encourages the international community to reduce the import of any product from the Xinjiang region of China. The act based on its findings encourages to gather more information to differentiate between products produced with voluntary and involuntary labour. It would help to curtail and subsequently end human trafficking.

  • The act is expected to actively work to prevent, publicly denounce, and end human trafficking as a horrific assault on human dignity and to restore the lives of those affected by human trafficking, a modern form of slavery. The act responds to the human rights violation by curbing the import of product produced out of forced labour.

  • The act on prevention of atrocities and protection of national interest undertaken in order to prevent, torture, enforced disappearances, severe deprivation of liberty, mass internment, arbitrary detention and widespread use of forced labour.

  • It aims to address issues of gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, through bilateral diplomatic channels and multilateral institutions, where both the United States and China are members and with all the authorities available to the United States Government, including visa and financial sanctions, export restrictions, and import controls.

The Effect of Uighur forced labour prevention act HR 6210

The act aims to prevent importation from Uighur autonomous region and addresses the issue of Human Rights Violation. It places various import restriction on the region and even creates a possibility to impose sanctions in case of human rights violation. The bill creates various precondition for importing and accepting goods and restricts importation to those the which can be determined as being manufactured without forced, convict or indentured labour. Through this, the US uses the bill to protect its consumers from unwittingly benefitting from the perpetrators of potential genocide.[4] Since it’s difficult to identify whether goods are a product of forced labour or not and this is why the US assumes that the products are the outcome of forced labour unless clearer evidence presents itself suggesting otherwise. Regardless, the success of the bill can be highlighted with the security exchange commission report, monitoring activities in Xinjiang in order to create provisions and impose sanctions. If as per the conditions laid down, the act catches any anomaly, then, the president would decide the further course of action i.e. whether to investigate, impose a sanction or charge under any criminal offence.

The Recent bill which would be turned into an act i.e. The Uighur Forced Labour Prevention Act has some elements of the act published within the prior Obama administration, which placed a similar ban on the import of forced labour produced goods. The recent bill marks a continuation of the prior act and set a general nature of practice to be enforced by the US administration against forced labour in China. Despite the similarity between the acts introduced among the two administrations, the exception occurs in Article 1307, which generally restricts import and allows import in only those cases where the domestic production wasn’t sufficient to meet the demand. Regardless, the rarity in the enforcement of this act, the current administration following the decision of the successive Obama administration, has banned the import and sale of forced labour produced goods.[5] The116th Congress sees to it that, the bill is focused on addressing “the issue of forced labour of ethnic labour and other Muslim minorities”.[6]

This could evoke further inquiry over various other forced labour issues and gives the US Congress an opening it needs to undertake action through the bill and overcome the risks from import of products in the supply chain. In this the CBP US (Custom and Border Protection) has emerged as an important regulatory body to oversee the production and exchange of goods and whether they are made with forced labour. The recent additions made by the US through article 1307 seeks to prevent the import of goods produced with forced labour and shifts the responsibility to oversee that the goods produced with forced labour aren’t purchased towards importers. Thus, shifting the responsibility to decide the nature of produce imported towards the importers.

This could, in turn, create pressure on china and servery affect its industry which relies on labour for its cotton industry. It could also resurge strained relations between China and the USA which had reached a midpoint in resolving their trade war. On the contrary, the act has received criticism from within the government, especially the US chamber of commerce, which sort to prioritize identify and legitimacy of the products received as forced labour. The US Chamber letter on the act, states points which are well intended however if not enquired into properly could curtail any further action. This has placed an additional burden on the companies to ensure that they don’t undertake any action which could violate human rights and prevents the US companies from acquiring those products and from unethically profiting from the supply chain. For example, the US chamber quotes the case of DRC where, the situation worsened due to US intervention in accordance with the consumer protection act, which aimed to identify the use of the mineral.

In turn, the US government has taken upon itself to address the issue of protection of workers right and oversee the global supply chain and if the activity turns into law it would give a period of 4 months to shift the supply chain elsewhere, for example for the USA bill has opened the possibility for the stock market to identify if forced labour was used in the supply chain thus allowing the investors to make an informed decision. This pattern is followed to reform the supply chain and to prevent the purchase of product produced with forced labour or created through slavery. The US chamber of commerce report on HR 6210 “Uighur Chamber Forced Labour Prevention Act” and the recent “Uighur Forced Labour Disclosure Act of 2020” suggests that the efforts may be infective in fulfilling the task of overcoming human rights abuses. For example, the act states based on the ‘disclosure of any activity which can help to determine whether an investigation is needed into the possible imposition of sanction’ under the ‘Uighur Forced Labour Prevention Act’ helps to determine if an enquiry is necessary or if the person can be held accountable for the importation of goods produced by forced labour.[7]

However, a letter by the US chamber of commerce criticized the government action on a similar situation, where a well-intended action to resolve the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) ended in worsening the situation, where a defined list was created to distinguish the minerals based on whether they were conflict-free or not. However in the absence of an accurate system created difficulty in standardizing or give to disclosure, resultant to it the de facto embargo was imposed which ultimately affected the miners, and the original goal was side-tracked. Ultimately the conflict over mineral disclosure was removed by the courts. The US chamber of commerce calls criticize the act for the perceived effect would endanger legitimate commerce in its way to remove products of forced labour. The letter further requests for a workable action or initiative to address the central issue i.e. to provide support to Uyghurs and to prioritize identify and legitimacy of the products which is received as forced labour. [8]

Therefore, simply put the act changes the nature of debate with its initial blacklisting of firms, put a restriction on importing products like tomato and cotton, and now the new bill seeks to reconstruct the narrative against forced labour and calls for evidence in support of a clean supply chain. However, the difficulty may arise in the absence of cooperation and an opaque system from Chinese authority to oversee the practice of a clear supply chain. The ban on the product made within the Xinyang is alleged to the product of forced labour and the WRO (Withhold Release Order) seeks to place ban products against the human rights abuse and forced labour. Now it’s for the CBP (Customs Border Protection) to enforce measures like put penalty on companies which are allegedly involved in forced labour and ensure that the system is free from forced labour. Further, an Australian think provides a similar report indicating that China use of forced labour by the Uighur and other Muslim in the production under brands such as Nike and H&M, to become vigilante about their sourcing and prompt them to look for alternative sourcing. It also estimated the transfer of Uyghurs from Xinyang to factories in china. If the act becomes a law it would disrupt trade and jeopardize the fragile relationship between the two nations which is jostled with pre-existing issues of trade, espionage and covid outbreak. The act which was condemned by China, which calls it its internal matter and the camps to be a training centre while denying allegation by the USA which calls it human rights violation.


Conclusions

The US act has brought the humanitarian issue of forced labour faced by the Uyghur community in China to the forefront and created vigilance about the products consumed. The US has taken its stance to counteract china’s policy and create pressure by shaping the public opinion against Chinese product. Meaning that even if the act doesn’t become a law it would in turn encourage and shape public debate over the issue.

US act seeks to resolve the humanitarian cause which is an act of benevolence but at the same time it's doing very little to resolve the actual issue which is of forced labour. By preventing the import of goods produced with forced labour doesn’t automatically resolve the other synonymous issue, which is the minimum pay, life security etc. By import cut of products produced in re-education camps exposes those already exploited, and may even make them prone to exploitation, which could even deteriorate the situation for Uighurs.


References

[1] Anna Hayes (February 15, 2019) Explainer: who are the Uyghurs why is the Chinese government detaining them https://theconversation.com/explainer-who-are-the-uyghurs-and-why-is-the-chinese-government-detaining-them-111843 [2] Charity Right (October 4, 2020) Uighur in Turkey https://charityright.org.uk/post/uyghur-in-turkey/ [3] US Government publishing House (March 12, 2020) Congressial Bill 116th congress https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/BILLS-116s3471is/html/BILLS-116s3471is.htm [4] Ann Strimmov Durbin (September 25, 2020) Uighur Forced Labour Prevention Act passes house – now into the senate https://www.jww.org/conflict-areas/china/uyghur-forced-labor-prevention-act-house/ [5] Samuel Witten, Claire E. Reade (July 17, 2020) US authority increase enforcement of ban on importing goods made with forced labor https://www.arnoldporter.com/en/perspectives/publications/2020/06/us-ban-on-goods-made-with-forced-labor [6]Uighur Intervention and Global Humanitarian and Unified Response Act of 2019, S.178, 116th Cong. (2019); Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act, S. 3471, 116th Cong. (2020); and Uyghur Forced Labor Disclosure Act of 2020, H.R. 6270, 116th Cong. (2020). https://www.arnoldporter.com/en/perspectives/publications/2020/06/us-ban-on-goods-made-with-forced-labor [7] Congress Government (September 23, 2020) H.R. 6210 https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6210/text [8] US Chamber of commerce (September 22, 2020) U.S Chamber letter on H.R 6210, the “Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act” and H.R. 6270, the “Uighur Forced Labor Disclosure Act of 2020” https://www.uschamber.com/letters-congress/us-chamber-letter-hr-6210-the-uyghur-forced-labor-prevention-act-and-hr-6270-the

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