A group of human-rights, labor and investor organizations filed a formal petition with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Monday urging it to issue a regional Withhold Release Order (WRO) on all cotton-made goods linked to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, following “credible and widespread” proof of forced labor that experts say is part of a broader government-sponsored campaign to repress and control Muslim minorities.
The 10 petitioners—the AFL-CIO, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, the Corporate Accountability Lab, Freedom United, the Human Trafficking Legal Center, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, the Investor Alliance for Human Rights, the Uyghur American Association, the Uyghur Human Rights Project and the World Uyghur Congress—previously joined End Uyghur Forced Labour, a coalition of more than 180 organizations across 36 countries, to urge apparel brands to sever ties with suppliers in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities are reportedly using mass internment, indoctrination and forced labor to remold some 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Turkic Muslim minorities into Communist Party-abiding model Chinese citizens.
“It is time for concrete action to bring enforcement in line with reality,” Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said in a statement. “The large-scale forced-labor program is a core part of the government’s plan for control and surveillance of Uyghurs. It is a deliberate policy carried out in every corner of the Uyghur homeland.”
Because roughly one in five cotton garments sold globally contains fiber or yarn sourced from the Xinjiang region, “virtually” the entire apparel industry is complicit in human-rights abuses against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims, according to the End Uyghur Forced Labour coalition. Investigations over the past two years from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Washington D.C.’s Center for Strategic & International Studies and others have connected dozens of brands and retailers—including Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Amazon, Fast Retailing, Gap, H&M, L.L. Bean, Nike, Patagonia, Skechers, Zara owner Inditex and PVH Corp., which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger—to companies that have operations in Xinjiang or have accepted government subsidies or government-supplied labor at these operations.
It is illegal under U.S. Code Title 19 Section 1307, however, for the United States to allow entry of goods “produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor or/and forced labor or/and indentured labor.”
“Greedy for-profit, major brands have put dollars over human rights,” said Jennifer Rosenbaum, executive director of Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum. “The Tariff Act was designed for cases like this to block goods—in this case brand-name clothes—from being sold to U.S. consumers, making them complicit in gross abuses against the Uyghur people.”
Voluntary codes of conduct, she added, have “again failed,” but a regional WRO would create the “necessary market consequences for the fast-fashion brands who are profiting from forced labor.”
Despite the CBP issuing four WROs against certain products from the Xinjiang region earlier this summer, efforts have been “[in]sufficiently sweeping” to dissuade the Chinese government to end its forced labor scheme or discourage most major apparel brands from importing cotton goods linked to Uyghur exploitation and selling them to U.S. consumers, the petitioners said, though Patagonia and PVH Corp. both announced their intentions in July to end any business relationships with suppliers that produce fiber, fabric or garments there.
A blanket ban isn’t unprecedented; in 2018, the CBP issued a WRO on all cotton and cotton-made goods originating in Turkmenistan because of the country’s state-sponsored program of forced labor in the cotton sector.
“The same threshold is clearly met in Xinjiang given the scale and severity of state-sponsored forced labor and other abuses targeting Uyghurs and other Muslim and Turkic peoples,” said David Schilling, senior program director for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and the Investor Alliance for Human Rights.
Britain’s Global Legal Action Network, together with the World Uyghur Congress, is filing a companion petition with the CBP based on a similar complaint filed with U.K. authorities earlier this year alleging widespread labor abuses. As in the United States, U.K. law prohibits the import of products made with prison labor.