WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. lawmakers pushed Wednesday for a ban on imports from a vast area of northwestern China because of the widespread use of forced labor in a region where the communist government has detained more than a million people in a campaign against ethnic minorities.
The U.S. already bans imports made with forced labor, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers said virtually anything coming from Xinjiang, including goods sold by major American and global consumer brands, should be considered tainted by the mass detention and repression of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities.
“We know forced labor is widespread and systematic and exists both within and outside the mass internment camps,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, referring to detention centers where the Chinese government is subjecting hundreds of thousands of Uighurs to abusive conditions, torture and political indoctrination.
McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is co-chairman of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which released a report that documented forced labor. It found it in the mass internment camps, on farms in Xinjiang, that produce cotton for the global market as well as factories elsewhere in the country.
The report said major brands, including Coca-Cola, Patagonia and Nike, are suspected of directly or indirectly relying on forced labor. The commission relied on outside experts, satellite imagery, official reports and accounts from The Associated Press and other media organizations.
Bipartisan legislation introduced Wednesday would treat all goods from Xianjiang, including clothing and electronic goods sold by major U.S. and global brands, as presumed to be banned unless they were certified by Customs and Border Protection.
“It shifts the burden of proof and the presumption that, given these practices and what's detailed in this report, we should assume that anything that is produced in this region is done so through forced labor,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is the other co-chairman of the commission.
It's not clear when Congress would take up the bill. Legislation that would more broadly address China's campaign against the Uighurs passed without opposition last year, but the House and Senate must still reconcile different versions and send it to the president.
A report earlier this month from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimated that more than 80,000 Uighurs were transferred from Xinjiang to factories across China between 2017 and 2019. The report said it found "conditions that strongly suggest forced labor" consistent with International Labor Organization definitions.
Separately, the AP reported last week that a sprawling Chinese factor that turns out computer screens, cameras and fingerprint scanners for global tech giants also appears to be holding Uighurs and other ethnic minorities under coercive conditions.
Corporations mentioned in the report have had varied responses. Coca-Cola said in a statement it prohibits the use of all forms of forced labor and said its sugar supplier in Xinjiang passed an internal audit.
In January 2019, Badger Sportswear, a leading supplier of T-shirts and other apparel to U.S. college bookstores, cut ties with a Chinese company after an AP investigation traced shipments from a factory inside an internment camp in Xinjiang.
Nike said in a statement that it does not directly source any products in the Xinjiang region and has been reviewing suppliers outside the area “to identify and assess potential risks” to Uighurs and other minorities amid reports that some have been sent to other parts of China to work under repressive conditions.
“Nike is committed to upholding international labor standards and we are continuing to evaluate how to best monitor our compliance standards in light of the complexity of this situation,” the company said.
Patagonia said it works with the Fair Labor Association to ensure materials in its supply chain are not produced with forced labor and that none of its finished products comes from Xinjiang.
“We support the Fair Labor Association’s call for an immediate end to forced labor and other human rights abuses against Uighurs in China," the company said in a statement. “We’ve been horrified by what we’ve read in the media regarding a systemic, planned effort to force the country’s population of ethnic minorities into lives of factory work and a program to change their basic beliefs."
A coalition of retailing and manufacturing groups said in a joint statement that they do not tolerate forced labor and that companies are working with experts to ensure the fair treatment of workers in their supply chains. It called on the U.S. government to create a working group that would find “constructive solutions” but did not directly address the proposed legislation.
"The conditions in Xinjiang and the treatment of ethnic minority workers from the region present profound challenges to the integrity of the global supply chain, including issues of transparency, access, and auditing," it said. “Accepting the status quo is not an option.”
China has long suspected that Uighurs, who are predominantly Muslim and culturally and ethnically distinct from the majority Han Chinese population, of harboring separatist tendencies. In recent years, though, it has dramatically escalated its campaign against them by detaining more than a million people in the internment camps and prisons.
The Chinese government has dismissed international criticism of the campaign as meddling in its internal affairs and described the camps as vocational training centers. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang rejected the findings of the report and denied the use of forced labor.
“The legitimate labor rights and interests of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang are protected according to law, and there is no such thing as forced labor as claimed by someone with ulterior motives,” Geng told reporters.