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‘Humanity Won Today’: Uyghur Forced Labor Bill Passes Congress

In a rare display of bicameral bipartisanship, both the U.S. House and the Senate unanimously passed a measure that creates a “rebuttable presumption” that all imports from China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are made with forced labor by persecuted ethnic minorities—and therefore banned from the United States—unless “clear and convincing” evidence presents otherwise.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a harmonized text that reconciles differences between versions passed in the House and Senate, will now head to the White House, where President Joe Biden has indicated he will the bill sign into law, striking a blow against what his administration has charged as genocide against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim groups. In addition to forced labor, alleged offenses include extrajudicial detention, forced sterilization, family separation, religious repression, torture and sexual abuse, all of which Beijing has strenuously denied.

“The core of this provision is the rebuttable presumption that forced labor was used in the manufacturing of goods or inputs produced in the Uyghur region,” Allison Gill, forced labor program director at the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, told Sourcing Journal. “Now that the bill is on its way to becoming law, it is key for a robust enforcement plan to be developed and to ensure that corporations don’t use the public comment period to continue to seek ways to weaken the core provisions.”

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Once signed, the rebuttable presumption has 180 days to take effect. The final version no longer requires companies to disclose their involvement in a broad swath of business dealings in Xinjiang.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced the earlier version of the legislation with Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley in the Senate, appeared to dismiss criticisms that the rebuttable presumption would be a hardship for companies with limited visibility into their supply chains.

“Many companies have already taken steps to clean up their supply chains. And, frankly, they should have no concerns about this law,” Rubio said in a statement. “For those who have not done that, they’ll no longer be able to continue to make Americans—every one of us, frankly—unwitting accomplices in the atrocities, in the genocide that’s being committed by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Several U.S. trade organizations, including the American Apparel & Footwear Association, the United States Fashion Industry Association and the National Retailers Association, issued a joint statement hailing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act as a “key component of a broad global strategy, and our shared goal, to end forced labor.”

“Our members are persistent and unyielding in their efforts to identify, root out, and eliminate traces of forced labor in their supply chains, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection is a critical partner to supplement our members’ own due diligence,” they wrote. “This legislation will amplify that partnership by ensuring CBP can effectively and robustly enforce not only the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, but the larger forced labor statute, by using a transparent and evidence-based process based on U.S. jurisprudence to target bad actors. These efforts are essential to effectively stop products made with forced labor from entering the United States.”

Angela Santos, a partner who leads ArentFox Schiff’s task force on forced-labor risks in the supply chain, said the legislation will provide some sorely needed clarity around CBP requirements.

“Although it does create a higher burden for importers, it also provides some certainty and structure in terms of what’s expected from Customs and then also what’s expected of companies,” she told Sourcing Journal. “In other words, it’s going to outline what kind of due diligence importers are expected to do.”

Greenlighting the compromise bill wasn’t entirely hiccup-free. Following the House’s unanimous approval of the reconciled text on Tuesday, a Senate attempt to expedite the measure on Wednesday was thwarted by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, who tried to bolt on an extension of the child tax credit, which provides monthly checks to parents. Rubio rejected Wyden’s request, citing the speed bump it would create in getting the legislation through.

“Sen. Wyden strongly supports this bill,” a Wyden aide told Sourcing Journal before Wyden ultimately capitulated. “Last night was perhaps the only opportunity left this year for Sen. Wyden to seek a vote on extending the child tax credit, which has been a lifeline for millions of Americans, but Republicans objected.”

Wyden’s actions caught the attention of Representative Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who accused the senator of rejecting the measure because of lobbying from Nike, a top donor to his campaign. “Tonight, Senator @RonWyden blocked the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act,” Banks tweeted on Wednesday night. “Why? He is bought and controlled by @Nike, who is headquartered in his home state and profits off of the slave work this bill would prohibit! Shameful!”

A 2020 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute named the sportswear Goliath among companies suspected of ties to forced labor in Xinjiang, which Nike has denied, insisting that neither it nor its contract suppliers source materials or products from the region. The Swoosh label also shot down claims from the New York Times last year it had been lobbying behind the scenes to dilute the bill, characterizing its interactions with congressional aides instead as “constructive discussions” to safeguard human rights.

Still, the allegations have proven hard to shake. Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter has accused Nike of profiting from “slave labor” in China, while the European Center for Constitutional Rights recently filed a criminal complaint in the Netherlands accusing the brand and others of abetting in “human-rights violations that could amount to crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang. But the Just Do It company’s standing in China has been just as fraught. Nike attracted a state-sanctioned consumer boycott over the summer after it sought to distance itself from reports of forced labor in Xinjiang, souring its bottom line to this day.

Nike did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while Wyden’s office did not address Banks’s tweet.

Ultimately “humanity won today,” ​​Elfidar Iltebir, secretary of the Uyghur American Association, an advocate of the bill, said in a statement. “By taking this tangible action, the U.S. Congress told the world that slavery/forced labor in any form, in any part of the world, cannot be tolerated.”

“The swift and vigorous enforcement of the law will be critical. Specialists in forced labor prevention—some of whom are members of our Coalition—will be working to make sure CBP follows through,” Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, a member of the End Uyghur Forced Labor Coalition, said in a statement. “This will include active participation in the comment period and public hearing provided by the legislation on enforcement methods and, most importantly, assisting victim communities in participating in these processes.”

For Merkley, all that remains is to get the legislation “over the finish line.”

“The United States must send a resounding and unequivocal message against genocide and slave labor wherever these evils appear,” he said in a statement. “Getting this bill over the finish line and into law ensures that American consumers and businesses can buy goods without inadvertent complicity in China’s horrific human-rights abuses. As the Chinese government tries to whitewash their genocide and claim a propaganda victory with the upcoming Olympics, this legislation sends a powerful, bipartisan message that the United States will not turn a blind eye.”