In the United States, Nike, Coca-Cola, or even Apple are among the companies trying to prevent the Uighur forced labor bill. And for good reason, their interests diverge from those of these oppressed minorities: Since their production chain is based in part on this region of China and its workers, the large groups fear harmful economic consequences for their companies. Some are therefore trying to defend themselves by trying to put pressure on Congress to extend deadlines, add changes, or even suggest that their interests be better considered.
The bill has already been passed by the House of Representatives and must now be examined by Congress, which large US groups want to influence, according to the New York Times. If the law were to pass, the United States would have to refuse all Uyghur-made goods unless it has been shown to be free from slave labor. These Turkish-speaking people of the Xinjiang region are persecuted by China, whose instruments of digital control and surveillance only amplify the phenomenon, and exploitation is not uncommon. This persecution (pdf), which has been well documented since 2018, has various forms: from detention in prisons to digital control and forced labor of citizens in Chinese clothing and shoe factories.
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In a 2020 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI, a Canberra-based think tank), we discover the connections between famous American brands, part of history and popular culture in the US, and minority forced labor.
“Under conditions strongly suggestive of forced labor,” Uyghurs work in factories that are part of the supply chains of at least 82 world-famous brands in the technology, clothing and automotive industries. These include Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony or Volkswagen. Which motivates the same companies to pressure not to pass a law protecting their exploited workers.
Nike, a far from unique example
Nike, for example, which is one of the companies trying to influence Congress, is known for employing Uyghur workers. Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co, for example, has been a supplier to Nike for more than 30 years and operates one of the largest factories for the American brand. However, the factory is located in Qingdao Province in Laixi, more than 3000 km from the capital Xinjiang. Like many others, these Uighur workers were sent here in groups of 50 by the local authorities to work away from home. “We can walk around, but we can’t go back [au Xinjiang] alone, ”said a Uyghur woman outside the Washington Post factory in February. At the end of their work these employees do not return to their lodges to find their families. They return to their dormitories under surveillance and pass in front of the factory police, which is covered in Uyghur writings urging them to “remain loyal to the Communist Party. “And” to maintain the right discipline “.
This factory is one of the examples of the many places Uyghurs are currently working in deplorable conditions, leading to talk of forced labor. “The Chinese government is now exporting the punitive culture and ethics from re-education camps in Xinjiang to factories across China,” said Vicky Xiuzhong Xu, senior author of the ASPI report. In a report from a conference on “The Autonomous Region’s Progress in Fighting Poverty” in 2019, authorities found that “Job transfer has not only helped people in need increase their incomes. and out of poverty, but also helped young migrant workers to change their minds, to stay away from religious extremes, to acquire knowledge (…). Inner knowledge, cultural influences and the exchange and mixing of different ethnic groups have greatly influenced and changed their ideological concepts, ways of thinking and spiritual views. “Half a word about the goals of“ re-education ”underlying the interns in Chinese factories.
Nike, which is passively involved in this phenomenon of oppression and exploitation, refuses to engage in any unethical or irresponsible activity and claims to respect human rights throughout its production chain. If the new law against Uyghur forced labor is passed, the company may be forced to provide substantial evidence that it is not involved in China’s mechanisms of repression and control of Uyghurs.
The economic challenges of an ambitious law
These companies, whose supply chains affect Xinjiang, have no interest in seeing such a law passed, a law that seeks to protect human rights, and especially those of workers in the region. Lobbyists are vigorously fighting for an investment coup to dilute their supplies, arguing that while the law’s ambitious demands strongly condemn forced labor and the current atrocities in Xinjiang, the television channels could wreak havoc. Procurement is deeply rooted in China. Sophie Richardson, the Chinese director of Human Rights Watch, said in April 2020 that the bill was unprecedented. This could lead to pressure being put on companies that are believed to have some influence over the Chinese authorities through the economic ties that have been maintained, such as Nike, Apple or Coca-Cola.
In fact, all forced labor goods have been banned in the United States since 1930, provided there is reasonable evidence of the phenomenon. The laws to protect the Uyghurs passed since last May only reinforce the attention paid to these phenomena by offering them new modalities that focus precisely on the context of the vulnerability of these minorities in China.
In the case of Xinjiang, there are two problems: in a state as impermeable as China, it is extremely difficult to obtain hard evidence, and it is clear that the production chains of the big companies are deeply ingrained in the region, sometimes based on forced labor. In addition, the vast region in northwest China is a global gold mine for China and the world. It produces large quantities of raw materials such as cotton, coal, sugar, tomatoes and polycrystalline silicon (used in the semiconductor industry, such as chips or photovoltaic cells).
Cotton, a problematic Chinese product
In the case of cotton, for example, The Fabric Full of Lies tells us that Xinjiang produces about 20% of the cotton consumed worldwide and 84% of the Chinese cotton. In addition, exports are often mixed with cotton from other countries in large brand clothing factories in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia or Indonesia. According to an August 2020 article in the New York Times, about one in five cotton garments sold worldwide contains cotton or yarn from Xinjiang. Research by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal has also revealed links between Uyghur property and the supply chains of major fashion retailers.
Stephen Lamar, president of the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), argues that this legislation would “devastate” the industry supply chains without tracking the origins and distinguishing these different types of cotton clothing in the United States. He said a general ban on imports of cotton from Xinjiang would be extremely difficult – if not impossible – to enforce given its widespread use. In addition, it can be difficult to prove that the products are free from Uighur forced labor.
The fate of the Uighur population is increasingly being revealed
The ASPI report on Uyghurs for sale found that between 2017 and 2019, more than 80,000 Uyghurs from Xinjiang were moved to factories across China, although some of them were sent directly to refugee camps. Detention, the famous prisons that we see more and more documented.
There have been numerous other reports of arbitrary detention, forced labor in nearby factories, pledges of forced loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and renunciation of Islam, and reports of conditions of torture and other abuses. It is estimated that 1 to 2 million Uyghurs live in dozen of internment camps.
Guaranteeing human rights in Xinjiang, the American creed?
This law on the forced labor of this minority follows a law that President Trump passed in June 2020 and which deals with human rights policy for Uyghurs. The bill approved the imposition of US sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs. The government can now freeze the assets of anyone believed to be responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and even prohibit them from entering the territory. This law was passed almost unanimously by both houses of the American legislature. Enough to shake Nike, Coca-Cola or even Apple in the face of Congress that must decide the fate of this second bill to protect the Uyghurs.
After getting bipartisan support in the House of Representatives by a margin of 406 to 3 in the first round, Congress officials argue that this law against Uighur forced labor may be passed very soon. Despite pressure from lobbies and big business, they hope this will be enacted by the dying Trump administration or the news of President Biden, who will take office on January 20, 2021.