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Australian Senate Passes Bill Targeting Forced Labor

Amid mounting concerns over Beijing’s alleged use of forced labor in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the upper house of Australia’s Parliament approved last week a bill that could bar goods made from modern slavery.

While the measure has to clear the Morrison government-controlled lower house before it is enshrined into law, the move is indicative of heightening tensions over reports of genocidal abuses against Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in the world’s largest manufacturing economy. Up to 2 million Uyghurs, experts say, are being held in detention camps, where they’re tortured, forcibly sterilized and brainwashed as part of an aggressive campaign of indoctrination and cultural alienation. Those seen fit to graduate are funneled into factory and farming jobs, complete with quotas and threats against family members if they refuse to comply.

Proposed by independent senator Rex Patrick, the Customs Amendment (Banning Goods Produced By Forced Labour) Bill 2021 initially sought to block only goods made from forced labor from Xinjiang. Following a unanimous recommendation made by the Senate’s defense and trade legislation committee in June, however, the bill took on a more global perspective.

“The bill is, I acknowledge, something of a blunt instrument,” Patrick said in a statement. “But that’s what’s needed to thwart modern slavery, especially China’s resort to massive use of forced labor. Passage of this Bill through the Senate will hopefully force the hand of the coalition government, which so far has been sluggish, indeed most reluctant to move on this issue.”

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If Australia is to remain true to the democratic values it holds, he said, it needs to leave the ruling Chinese Communist Party in “no doubt” that its actions are “unconscionable and utterly unacceptable.”

“What is needed now is for the bill to pass through the House of Representatives; the onus is now on the coalition government,” he added. “We can’t have the government dodge the issue by saying that they are conducting another review. Action is required within the life of this Parliament, indeed within this calendar year.”

Patrick said that the nation needs to send a “signal” before the Beijing Winter Olympics begins in February, during which the Chinese Communist Party “intends to bask in a massive international propaganda event.” American lawmakers have urged a postponement of the Games, while the European Parliament has called diplomatic officials to skip them unless the Chinese government “demonstrates a verifiable improvement” in its human-rights stance.

“It would be a grave failure on the part of the Australian Parliament as a whole if we do not call out and take action to limit the massive abuses of human rights by the Chinese Communist regime,” he said. “This proposed law, as part of a growing international campaign against modern slavery and those who profit from such human rights abuses, will do just that.”

Beijing has repeatedly denied all allegations of human-rights abuses, defending its policies as necessary to lift the region out of poverty and stamp out extremism. It has hit back at accusations, deriding them as “lies” and attempts to undermine Xinjiang’s “prosperity and stability.”

But efforts by the international community to step up pressure on the superpower are intensifying. Already, the United States has banned the entry of Xinjiang cotton, tomato products and some photovoltaic products. In an escalation of efforts, the U.S. Senate last month unanimously approved legislation to outlaw all Xinjiang-made goods unless “clear and convincing” evidence demonstrates otherwise, placing the burden of proof on importers.

“The message to Beijing and any international company that profits from forced labor in Xinjiang is clear: no more,” Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who introduced the legislation with Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley of Ohio, said at the time. “We will not turn a blind eye to the [Chinese Communist Party’s] ongoing crimes against humanity, and we will not allow corporations a free pass to profit from those horrific abuses.”

Britain’s foreign affairs committee, too, has recommended that Boris Johnson’s administration consider a ban on the import of all cotton products known to be produced in whole or in part in Xinjiang, boycott the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Games and discourage British businesses from sponsoring or advertising in the Olympics.

“The evidence of severe human-rights abuses and crimes against the Uyghur people is already overwhelming and indisputable, and Parliament has called it genocide,” Tom Tugendhat, chair of the foreign affairs committee, said in a statement last month. “This report moves the conversation forward, away from the question of whether crimes are taking place and on to what the U.K. should do to end them.”