NEW YORK, New York — On January 13, 2021, the United States announced a ban on all imports of tomato and cotton products from the Xinjiang region of China due to extensive evidence of the use of Uyghur forced labor in production. Following this ban, on January 19, the U.S. State Department also announced that the actions of the Chinese government toward Muslim minority groups linked to Uyghur forced labor are classified as genocide and crimes against humanity.
Background on Uyghur Forced Labor
According to findings by U.S. Congress contained in the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained more than 1.8 million members of Muslim minority groups in “political re-education” camps since 2017. These camps link to multiple cases of human rights abuses, including forced labor, political indoctrination, mass surveillance and torture. Through these findings, Congress has also identified cotton and tomatoes as high-priority sectors for enforcement in order to combat forced labor in Xinjiang.
Potential Effects on the Global Supply Chain
In addition, the crisis of Uyghur forced labor has called attention to the complexity of the global supply chain. This attention will hopefully encourage a new standard of both transparency and due diligence in companies to regulate and disclose the origins of the materials used in products.
Several global apparel and textile brands have already been linked to Uyghur forced labor and the ban on cotton from Xinjiang may further incentivize companies to reorganize their supply chains. On March 1, 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report that linked Uyghur forced labor to the supply chains of at least 82 global brands.
Labor Exchange Programs
This ban is a strong first step that sends a message to Beijing about the global financial ramifications of its continued perpetuation of human rights abuses. However, China’s use of labor exchange programs makes it increasingly complex to avoid forced labor solely by banning imports coming from Xinjiang. The ASPI’s 2020 report on Uyghur forced labor identified evidence of labor exchange programs. In fact, China transferred an estimated 80,000 Uyghurs to work in factories throughout the country between 2017 and 2019. These labor transfer programs show that forced labor is, unfortunately, not just specific to Xinjiang and not solely specific to the production of tomatoes and cotton. Tackling forced labor will require further action.
To continue the momentum in taking action against these crimes against humanity, other nations will need to follow suit and sever financial ties linked to forced Uyghur labor in an act of condemnation. Furthermore, ending forced labor necessitates an expansion of the ban to include all goods and factories in China tied to human rights abuses. A cross-regional group of 39 United Nations member countries already delivered a statement calling upon China to respect human rights and refrain from arbitrary detainment of minority populations. The statement requests that China allows independent observers immediate access to the province of Xinjiang.
– Katherine Musgrave