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Lawmakers Jump into the Furor Over Uyghur Forced Labor

U.S. officials have called for a ban on imports from a large swath of northwestern China following reports of the ruling Communist Party’s use of Turkic Muslim forced labor as part of a broader campaign against ethnic minorities in the country.

U.S. Representative James McGovern (D-MA) and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China unveiled Wednesday the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a new bipartisan and bicameral legislature that seeks to make verboten virtually all products from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

The territory is where as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslim minorities have been detained in one of a thousand “reeducation” camps designed to assimilate them into the majority Han Chinese culture.

At a roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C., officials said the bill creates a “rebuttable presumption” about forced labor in Xinjiang, meaning the assumption will stand as a fact unless proven otherwise. If passed, any corporation seeking to import goods (including clothing and electronic goods) from Xinjiang will have to provide “clear and convincing” evidence to Customs Border and Protection that they are free of forced labor.

“Any U.S. or international company with operations in Xinjiang or working with the Xinjiang government to source labor to other parts of China should reconsider whether they want to be producing products in a region where there is evidence ‘crimes against humanity’ are being committed,” said McGovern. “It is long past time for companies to reassess their operations and supply chains in Xinjiang and find alternatives that do not exploit and violate individuals’ human rights.”

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The discussion coincided with the publication of a report by the commission detailing the Chinese government’s “far-reaching system” of forced labor in Xinjiang, as well as the widespread human-rights abuses—both within and outside these internment camps—that deserve a “concerted response” from the U.S. government and the international community.

“U.S. businesses and consumers should not be complicit in forced labor and Chinese businesses should not profit from the forced labor of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslim minorities,” the report’s authors wrote.

Based on what it described as “credible” accounts and testimonies, the report said it suspects many leading brands and retailers, including Adidas, Calvin Klein, Esquel Group, Esprit, H&M, Nike, Patagonia and Tommy Hilfiger of either directly or indirectly employing forced labor.

“For far too long the Chinese Communist Party has gotten away with the systematic use of forced labor by Uyghur Muslims and other Turkic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang,” Rubio said. “While the U.S. Government should take all precautionary measures to ensure that goods made in the XUAR don’t enter our market, companies have a moral duty and responsibility to prove that their sourced products have been produced without forced labor.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Fashion Industry Association, American Apparel & Footwear Association, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association and Footwear Distributors & Retailer Association posted a rare joint statement addressing the allegations of forced labor in Xinjiang, saying that they “recognize the seriousness of the situation on the ground in Xinjiang” and “reinforce the efforts that fashion brands and retailers have already undertaken to identify and stop forced labor in their supply chains.”

Still, finished garments are not the only products that could be tainted with modern slavery, according to an October report from the Center for Strategic & International Studies. One of the world’s largest cotton producers, China accounted for 22 percent of the global market in 2018-19. Because more than 30 percent of U.S. apparel imports hail from China, any of those including cotton “most likely incorporate products from Xinjiang and thus may be affected by forced labor.”