The United States Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act on Thursday in a rare showing of near unanimous bipartisan support. The bill establishes a rebuttable presumption that all goods mined, produced, or manufactured in Xinjiang—the autonomous region in northwest China—are done so by force and therefore banned from entering the United States. This will complicate, if not upend, supply chains for many large fashion brands with production embedded heavily in the region.
The US Government has accused the Chinese Communist Party of imprisoning more than one million Uyghurs and members of other Muslim ethnic minority groups since 2017, and have subjected those not detained to intense surveillance, religious restrictions, forced labor, and forced sterilizations. The Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) reported these findings in March of 2020 based on testimony from former camp detainees, satellite imagery of factories being built in internment camps, and public and leaked Chinese government documents.
Rep. James P. McGovern (D-MA), a co-chair of the Commission as well as a sponsor of the bill, explained the need for the blanket presumption of forced labor this month in a speech on the House floor posted to YouTube: “Many products used everyday by people all over our country, including clothing, food, and shoes, are made using forced labor—the forced labor of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities held by the Chinese government across a network of internment camps. It has been illegal to import forced labor products into the United States for more than ninety-years, but it is exceedingly difficult to spot them since Chinese producers often mix together products that are the result of both involuntary and voluntary labor. Moreover, the lack of Chinese government transparency, and the police state atmosphere in Xinjiang, make auditing of product sourcing unreliable, if not impossible.”
Once signed into law, the challenge of enforcement remains to be determined. Despite US sanctions imposed against Xinjiang cotton suppliers last year, the Washington Post reported this past November that banned cotton is still making its way onto US shelves through third countries that are manufacturing clothing and other items with cotton shipped in from China—85 percent of China’s cotton is produced in Xinjiang. The bill allots for a period of public comment and a public hearing before a strategy is implemented, but it is clear that reliance on and coordination with the private sector will be crucial.
Many companies cited in the CECC report as being suspected of having tainted supply chains, like H&M, the PVH Corporation, and Adidas, have released statements denouncing forced labor and some have recently cut ties with factories and suppliers in the region. Although a few American companies, like Nike, allegedly lobbied against parts of the bill, (according to the New York Times), their public statement denies it. Companies who have taken a position on matters in Xinjiang have faced a significant backlash in China, leading to a plunge in sales and even some store closures in that market.
The successful vote on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act comes at a time of rising tensions with China as Canada, the UK, and Australia have joined the United States in a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming 2022 Beijing Olympics. The International Olympic Committee continues its partnership with the Chinese company Anta, an admitted user of Xinjiang-produced cotton, as its official sportswear uniform supplier.