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Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act Passes Senate Committee

A bill that assumes that all imports from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are made with forced labor and should therefore be blocked from entering the American market has cleared its first legislative hurdle in the U.S. Senate.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, or S.65, passed the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations with a unanimous bipartisan vote Thursday, signaling a growing desire from the halls of government to hold businesses accountable for potential human-rights abuses in their supply chains.

The legislation effectively bans all goods from Xinjiang under the 1930 Tariff Act unless “clear and convincing” evidence demonstrates that they weren’t produced using modern slavery from oppressed Uyghur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities. It would shift the burden of proof from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to the importer, require the White House to impose sanctions on foreign entities that “knowingly engage” in forced labor and compel businesses to disclose any dealings in the region.

“Today’s committee passage of this bipartisan bill is a significant step in ensuring Beijing is not profiting from its genocide and crimes against Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice president of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and a senior member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said in a statement. “We cannot turn a blind eye to the [Chinese Communist Party’s] ongoing crimes against humanity. We must enact legislation to prevent products, made with forced labor, from entering our nation’s supply chains.”

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America cannot “stay silent” or “be complicit” in the face of genocide, said Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chair of the bipartisan and bicameral Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

“Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang are being tortured, imprisoned, forced into labor, and pressured to abandon their religious and cultural practices by the Chinese government,” he said. “We have to make sure that items produced through such forced labor are not sold on American soil. That’s why it’s so crucial that we pass the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, ban the importation of these goods, and continue to do everything we can to hold the perpetrators of this genocide accountable.”

The next stop: The full Senate, where a previous version of the bill stalled last year despite passing in the House by a margin of 406 to 3.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, thanked Foreign Relations Committee members for ushering the bill through. “It has been more than a year since the bill was introduced,” executive director Omer Kanat said in a statement. “Now is the time to enact it into law.”

Not everyone is a fan of the bill. Last September, the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the National Retail Federation, the U.S. Fashion Industry Association and the Retail Industry Leaders Association released a joint statement expressing concern about how the legislation could affect sourcing activities—and human rights—in Xinjiang.

“We share the goals of the legislation—to end forced labor and the larger campaign of oppression it is fueling—yet we fear this bill will not help us get closer to that end goal,” the groups wrote. “Instead, the legislation would establish a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ blanket standard, directly contradicting U.S. jurisprudence and due process, branding anything and everything associated with XUAR as made with forced labor.”

Such an approach, they said, would “do further harm to human rights, economic development, legitimate supply chains, and will jeopardize the livelihoods of millions of workers worldwide without specifically addressing human-rights concerns.”

In January, the organizations took up their pens again, urging Congress to “take stock of measures that have already been taken, ensure administrability and provide all stakeholders a clear, effective, and enforceable path forward on reaching our shared goal–ending forced labor in the XUAR and the larger campaign of oppression it fuels.”

Lawmakers, they said, should require the development of a “transparent, tiered, risk-based approach” to enforcement of any new forced labor provisions before implementing those provisions, while creating a “clear, transparent, and evidence-based process for implementing both current and future regulations.”

The news comes as the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security added five Chinese companies to the so-called entity list for “accepting or utilizing forced labor in the implementation of the People’s Republic of China’s campaign of repression against Muslim minority groups.” Among the companies, which are prohibited from buying American technology and components without a license, is the paramilitary Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which has an active Withhold Release Order on all cotton and cotton-containing goods and already faces sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act.

“As we made clear during this month’s G7 summit, the United States is committed to employing all of its tools, including export controls, to ensure that global supply chains are free from the use of forced labor and technology is not misused to abuse human rights,” Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said Thursday. “The Commerce Department will continue to take firm, decisive action to hold China and other perpetrators of human-rights abuses accountable.”