At a public hearing on April 8 convened by The Forced Labor Enforcement Task Force (FLETF), as required by the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, human rights activists and labor leaders urged the Biden administration to be firm on the upcoming ban on products made with forced labor in China’s Uyghur Region.
Victim testimonies and research are compelling: slavery and coercion are pervasive in the supply chains of companies in the region and in China.
A comprehensive article in the New York Times extensively reviews the different aspects of forced labor in China’s Uyghur region and the links with the United States, and presents the perspectives of advocates and victims who supported the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.
According to Rushan Abbas, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Campaign for Uyghurs, and who became one of the most prominent Uyghur voices in international activism after his sister was detained by the Chinese government in 2018, forced labor has become a “profitable venture” for the Chinese Communist Party and is intended to reduce the overall population in the Uyghur region’s villages and towns. He also added unequivocally:
“The pervasiveness of the issue cannot be understated,” adding that forced labor was made possible by “the complicity of industry.”
Gulzira Auelkhan, an ethnic Kazakh who escaped from the Uyghur Region to Texas, testified at the hearing through a translator and stated that she had been imprisoned for 11 months along with ethnic Kazakhs and Uyghurs and that they were subjected to torture and forced sterilization. She also worked for two and a half months in a textile factory that made gloves and school uniforms that – according to her supervisors – were destined for markets in the United States, Europe, and Kazakhstan.
What will happen when the law goes into effect?
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which was signed into law by the Biden administration in December 2021, is set to go into effect in June of this year in the United States. The law bans all products made in the Uyghur region or with ties to certain entities or programs that have sanctions and that forcibly move minority workers to workplaces unless the importer can demonstrate to the government that its supply chains are free of forced labor.
The questions that arise are how rigorously the law will be enforced and whether it will affect only a few companies or many more.
As required by law, the task force of the Biden administration officials will be developing several lists of entities and products that are of concern because they are suspected of using or of being made with forced labor.
Several trade experts have already indicated that many U.S. companies that rely on Chinese factories may find that raw materials or at least some components in their supply chains are linked to the Uyghur Region.
Supply chains with links to the Uyghur Region in the spotlight
It is already illegal to import products made with slave labor. But for products with ties to the Uyghur Region, the law shifts the burden of proof to companies, requiring them to prove that their supply chains are free of forced labor before they are allowed to bring the products into the country.
Supply chains for solar products, textiles, and tomatoes have been under scrutiny, and companies in those industries have been working these past few months to reduce exposure to the use of forced labor. Still, it is undeniable that the Uyghur Region is the source – by some estimates – of one-fifth of the world’s cotton and 45% of polysilicon, a key material for solar panels.
The Chinese aluminum sector and the indicators of forced labor
The Uyghur Region is also a major supplier of other products and raw materials, such as coal, oil, gold, and electronics. In fact, as chronicled in the New York Times, at the April 8 virtual hearing investigators and activists presented allegations of links to forced labor programs involving Chinese manufacturers of gloves, aluminum, car batteries, hot sauce, and other goods.
Horizon Advisory, a consultancy in Washington, claimed in a recent report that the Chinese aluminum sector had numerous “indicators of forced labor,” including ties to labor transfer programs and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which has been a target of U.S. government sanctions for its role in abuses.
The Uyghur Region accounts for about 9% of the world’s production of aluminum, which is used to manufacture electronics, automobiles, aircraft, and packaging outside of China. According to Emily de La Bruyère, co-founder of Horizon Advisory:
“China is an industrial hub for the world. Forced labor in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China not only constitutes a grave human rights transgression, but also taints international supply chains. And this is true across sectors ranging from solar energy to textiles and apparel to aluminum.”
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