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Nithin Coca headshot

Companies Can’t Afford to Ignore Forced Labor in China Anymore

By Nithin Coca
forced labor

The more we learn about forced labor and the human rights situation in China, particularly as it affects minority groups including the mostly Muslim Uyghurs and ethnic Tibetans, the worse it gets. Over the past several years, news has broken about the largest system of concentration camps since World War II, the widespread intentional destruction of cultural heritage, and the jailing of peaceful locals for crimes such as "politically incorrect” ideas in cities like Urumqi (shown above). Reports indicate some have been sentenced to jail for actions as small as petitioning for Tibetan language education.

In the past few months, journalists and independent researchers have uncovered a massive expansion of forced labor programs that have impacted hundreds of thousands of innocent people. This has even forced Congress to act in a rare show of bipartisanship. Altogether, growing public awareness and political action may affect many major brands, several of which are implicated due to the interconnectedness of global supply chains.

“If responsible business conduct has any meaning, it requires brands to act when independent journalists, United Nations human rights experts, and human rights NGOs expose grave human rights abuses,” said Jennifer Rosenbaum, executive director of global labor justice at the International Labor Rights Forum, in a press statement. “Business and human rights principles require ... brands to stop using cotton and labor from the Uyghur Region in their global supply chains.”

So far, only a few companies have acted, most notably European fashion brand H&M, which cut ties with a supplier accused of using Uyghur forced labor. Most, however, have remained silent or say they are still investigating.

Inaction could soon have a bigger cost. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act passed the House of Representatives with an overwhelming vote of 406-3 and has been introduced in the Senate. If it becomes law, it would put the burden of proof on importers to show clear and convincing evidence that goods were not produced with forced labor before allowing them into the country.

“Companies are now on notice,” said Omer Kanat, executive director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, in an emailed press statement. “Americans do not want to be complicit in buying products made by Uyghurs locked in Chinese forced-labor factories. We thank the House of Representatives for responding with a resounding vote to pass this bill.”

It is disappointing that companies — many of which, to their credit, have spoken up for important issues domestically like Black Lives Matter or the right to vote — are almost universally silent on the Uyghur human rights crisis.

The bill, as it is currently written, would only affect goods imported from Xinjiang, the Chinese name for the Uyghur homeland, in the west of the country. Here’s the problem: That might not be enough.

A report entitled “Uyghurs for Sale,” released earlier this year by the Australia Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), found that Uyghurs were being transferred to other parts of China. Coda Story found that, during the height of the pandemic in China, Uyghurs were forced to work in factories that were otherwise closed, putting themselves at risk of infection. And the New York Times even found evidence that Uyghurs were being used to make face masks and other medical supplies all around China, perhaps even the ones you or your family is wearing right now.

Then, the latest bombshell from Reuters: A similar forced labor system is being implemented in Tibet, another region which has long seen repression at the hands of Chinese authorities. There, perhaps half a million Tibetans — 10 to 15 percent of the population — have been put in these programs, with at least several thousand being sent to work in other parts of China.

“China’s coerced labor program ... not only threatens the survival of Tibetans, but also to the integrity of the global supply chain and the values of the democratic order,” said Matteo Mecacci, president of the International Campaign for Tibet.

Brands have for decades relied on China as a source of raw materials like cotton or cheap labor for factories. They long ignored the lack of labor protections and human rights concerns, putting cost and profits ahead of people. But as the situation in China has deteriorated in the past decade, it has now become increasingly difficult to do business in China without being complicit in what many are calling a genocide.

There’s no easy solution. Shifting supply chains away from China will be costly. But to remain — when upwards of a million Uyghurs are in camps and countless more Uyghurs and Tibetans are in forced labor situations — far too great a risk for both people and corporate reputations.

Image credit: Miradil/Pixabay

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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