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Senate Passes Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. What Comes Next?

The U.S. Senate unanimously approved legislation Wednesday to ban the import of all goods from China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region following growing reports about forced labor and other human-rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act creates a “rebuttable presumption” that assumes all products from Xinjiang are made with forced labor and therefore banned from entering the United States under the 1930 Tariff Act. The current rule only blocks goods if forced labor is suspected.

Besides shifting the burden of proof from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to the importer, the bipartisan bill requires the White House to impose sanctions on foreign entities that “knowingly engage” in forced labor. Businesses will also have to disclose any dealings they have in Xinjiang.

“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 Oregon, said in a statement. “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.”

But before it can become law, the legislation must first pass the House of Representatives. It’s likely to gain strong support, however: The House approved a similar measure last year by a margin of 406 to 3, even though Coca-Cola and Nike reportedly lobbied against it, according to the New York Times.

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“Once this bill passes the House and is signed by the President, the United States will have more tools to prevent products made with forced labor from entering our nation’s supply chains,” Rubio added. “We cannot afford any further delay, and I call on my colleagues in the House to promptly send this bill to the President.”

The bill’s approval is only the latest salvo by the United States against Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang, where upward of 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities are believed to have been indiscriminately detained in so-called “re-education centers” as part of a broader campaign of oppression and assimilation. Hundreds of thousands of “graduated” ex-detainees, experts say, are likely toiling under conditions of forced labor, both within and outside of Xinjiang, through a state-sponsored labor transfer and “poverty alleviation” scheme.

“Today the Senate is sending a clear message that the United States will not be complicit in the Chinese government’s genocide of Uyghur Muslims,” Merkley said. “No American corporation should profit from these abuses. No American consumers should be inadvertently purchasing products from slave labor.”

The United States has already outlawed all cotton, tomatoes and some solar products from Xinjiang, as well as sanctioned a number of Chinese officials and companies alleged to be involved in the abuse and mistreatment of Uyghurs, which many say include extrajudicial imprisonment, high-tech surveillance, torture, forced sterilization and cultural and religious repression.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration issued a stark warning that businesses with supply-chain and investment ties to Xinjiang could run the risk of violating U.S. law as a result of “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity” in the region.

Beijing has denied all allegations, insisting that its policies are necessary to raise the region out of poverty and nip extremism in the bud. It has also hit back with tit-for-tat sanctions against the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, straining ties with its Western counterparts to their breaking point. The Senate action, along with recent motions by the European Parliament and the British House of Commons to stage a diplomatic boycott of the 2021 Beijing Winter Olympics because of China’s “atrocities,” though not legally binding, are unlikely to bolster relations.

“China has stated its position on Xinjiang-related issues on many occasions; the accusation of ‘forced labor’ is a sheer lie,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a press briefing in Beijing on Thursday. “The true intention of the U.S. is to undermine Xinjiang’s prosperity and stability, and deprive the people in Xinjiang of the right to subsistence, employment and development. What the U.S. has done amounts to forced unemployment and forced poverty. It fully reveals the sinister intention of the U.S. to use Xinjiang to contain China.”

Zhao added that the United States should reflect on its own spotty human-rights record and “stop wasting time and energy in smearing and attacking China by exploiting the issue of forced labor, stop moving forward with the relevant bill and stop manipulating the issue out of political agenda.”

Others responded to the Senate decision more positively. The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, praised the passage of the legislation and urged “swift action” by the House of Representatives.

“This unanimous vote by the U.S. Senate is historic,” Omer Kanat, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement. “Uyghurs around the world are deeply grateful.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, also hailed Senate’s approval of the bill.

“CAIR welcomes the Senate’s unanimous passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and urges members of the House to adopt the bill without delay,” Robert S. McCaw, its director of government affairs, said in a statement. “The United States must do everything it can to ensure American consumers and companies are not contributing to China’s genocide of Uyghur Muslims and its forced labor camps.”

The American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade group that represents boldface brands such as Adidas, Gap and J.Crew, says that clarity will be necessary on enforcement moving forward.

“The Senate bill is an important component to a holistic and global approach—which the apparel and retail industry [has] consistently called for—to end the campaign of oppression against Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang,” president and CEO Steve Lamar told Sourcing Journal. “The bill recognizes that all stakeholders must play an active role to bring the current genocide to an end. And it’s vital to create a clear, transparent and evidence-based process to ensure effective implementation and direct the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to work with all stakeholders in crafting a smart, targeted and risk-based enforcement strategy to ensure bad actors are stopped.”