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Xinjiang Uyghurs Aren’t China’s Only Forced Labor Problem

A Uyghur rights group has filed an argument with the High Court of England and Wales to challenge the importation of cotton goods produced in China using the “well-documented and widespread” use of ethnic-minority forced labor.

“Living in a free country which upholds respect for human rights, it hurts so much to know that the products that are used in this country are the fruit of the enslavement of my people,” said Rahima Mahmut, the U.K. project director for the World Uyghur Congress, which is pressing its case with the support of the Global Legal Action Network. “I have full confidence that the British government will make the right decision in line with its legal framework which champions the highest standards of human dignity.”

Because there is “more than enough evidence” that imports containing cotton from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are being produced in whole or in part by forced labor, the World Uyghur Congress and Global Legal Action Network argue, authorities should not only bar them from entering the U.K. market but also consider prosecuting those who import them.

One 2020 study estimates that half a million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims are being forced to pick cotton by hand through a state-sponsored labor transfer and “poverty alleviation” scheme. Xinjiang is the source of 85 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn accounts for 25 percent of the world’s supply of the fiber.

If the petition is successful, the judiciary could declare the British government’s decision to allow the flow of goods made with Xinjiang cotton illegal under the 1897 Foreign Prison-Made Goods Act, which prohibits the importation of prison-made goods, as well as the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act, which holds companies liable for knowingly importing “criminal property.” Either would require intervention from customs or criminal enforcement authorities, though Britain’s National Crime Agency previously stated that companies are protected from prosecution under the Proceeds of Crime Act as long as they obtain the property in exchange for “adequate consideration,” meaning market value.

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“The U.K. customs authorities are applying far too high an evidential threshold in their assessment of whether goods are made in conditions of detention, and this must now be addressed by the Court,” said Dearbhla Minogue, a legal officer with the Global Legal Action Network and a consultant solicitor with Bindmans. “Additionally, the National Crime Agency has taken an astounding approach in arguing that, as long as they pay good money for it, companies can source as much forced labor cotton as they like. This is wrong in law. Their combined approach means that companies are freely profiting from the misery of forced labor.”

The United Kingdom’s response to Xinjiang has been an equivocal one. While Boris Johnson’s government has joined its allies in the United States, Canada and the European Union in issuing sanctions on several Chinese officials for their role in alleged human-rights violations in Xinjiang, it has stopped short of announcing a ban on Xinjiang cotton despite recommendations from the foreign affairs committee. In April, the House of Commons passed unopposed a non-binding resolution condemning “mass human-rights abuses and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, yet Downing Street has been reluctant to use the term “genocide,” noting that any formal profession of the sort would have to be decided upon by “competent” courts.

The United States, in contrast, has barred Xinjiang cotton since January, routinely seizing shipments that it suspects of being made in whole or in part with forced labor. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which sailed through the Senate in July, would go even further, creating 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—unless “clear and convincing” evidence demonstrates otherwise. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have also repeatedly described Beijing’s actions against the Uyghurs as genocide.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has vehemently denied these accusations, denouncing them as slanderous attacks and rebuking Western powers for interferring with its domestic affairs.

A ‘threat to international peace’

Canada, too, needs to do better with blocking problematic shipments, according to CBC Marketplace. The news outlet published on Friday the results of a months-long investigation into retail giant Reitmans, which it said imported more than 100 shipments of clothing from a Chinese factory suspected of using North Korean forced labor.

Experts say that factories in the city of Dandong, which sits on the border of North Korea and China, have a history of employing North Korean workers. Dandong Huayang management told CBC that it didn’t use any “illegal workers” and denied any knowledge of a government pilot project to hire North Koreans. When the outlet sent two different undercover teams to the factory this summer, however, it was told that “a lot of North Koreans are currently working inside the factory.”

Reitmans, which also operates Penningtons and RW&Co, told CBC that it has a policy against using forced labor, and that its orders from Dandong Huayang Textiles and Garment Co. accounted for a “small amount” of what it sold. While an unannounced audit of Dandong Huayang in Dec. 2020 showed “no signs” of North Korean workers or forced labor, the retailer said, it stopped placing new orders with the factory out of an “abundance of caution” following a Guardian exposé that implicated the facility in the use of North Korean forced labor.

Still, CBC said it found Reitmans selling clothing from an old shipment at Penningtons stores nine months after it said it cut ties with the factory. Meanwhile, U.S. customs turned back shipments from Dandong Huayang earlier this year on suspicion of forced labor, Ed Fox, assistant port director of the Port of New York and New Jersey, told CBC.

“The allegation is that North Korean citizens were being brought into China, held at the factory, several of the key elements of forced labor were present,” he said. “There was debt bondage, they were restricted in terms of movement, their travel documents had been seized.”

The United Nations Security Council banned the use of North Korean migrant workers in 2017 after the country launched ballistic missiles, which it dubbed a “threat to international peace and security.” It demanded that all countries repatriate workers back to North Korea by the end of 2019 to stop them from earning foreign currency that the North Korean regime can use to “support its prohibited nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”

The U.S. State Department estimated that Pyongyang was raking more than $500 million a year from nearly 100,000 workers abroad, including 50,000 were in China and 30,000 in Russia. In 2019, more than 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade was with China. As a result of Covid-19 border restrictions easing, exports have more than doubled from $6.2 million in August to $14.3 million in September, the highest bounce since Dec. 2019, according to Chinese customs data.