Corporate lobbyists and slave labor

The fences along the side of the Qingdao Taekwang Shoes Co. factory -- the side where the Uighur workers enter and exit, and live in dorms -- looks almost like a prison. (Photo by Anna Fifield/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In the Xinjiang region of China, around 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been subjected to "severe human rights abuses, torture, political indoctrination, forced renunciations of faith, and widespread and systematic forced labor." This slave labor, which is used to produce finished goods and "raw materials like cotton, coal, sugar, tomatoes and polysilicon," contributes to products sold in the United States by major corporations. Now, many of these corporations are lobbying to weaken a bill to combat forced Uyghur labor. 

Importing goods made with forced labor is already illegal. Specifically, Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930 "prohibits the importation of merchandise mined, produced or manufactured, wholly or in part, in any foreign country by forced or indentured labor." But ignorance is bliss. The Chinese government shrouds its forced labor operation in secrecy, and corporations are often unable to determine definitively if their products, or the raw materials used to produce them, are implicated. 

A bipartisan group in Congress has proposed legislation to flip the burden of proof. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would ban "all goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China" unless Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) "determines, by clear and convincing evidence, that any specific goods, wares, articles, or merchandise...were not produced wholly or in part by convict labor, forced labor, or indentured labor." In other words, corporations would have the responsibility to demonstrate to the CBP that products produced in the region are free from forced labor. If the CBP determines that a corporation meets that burden, it would publicly issue a report with its findings. 

The bill overwhelmingly passed the House on September 22 by a vote of 406-3. But it has stalled in the Senate. Corporations are lobbying Congress, directly and through trade groups, to water down the legislation. 

Apple, for example, paid the firm Fierce Government Relations $90,000 in the third quarter to lobby on issues related to goods produced in the Xinjiang region. A document reviewed by the New York Times revealed that the company's lobbyists "suggested edits to the bill included extending some deadlines for compliance, releasing certain information about supply chains to congressional committees rather than to the public, and requiring Chinese entities to be 'designated by the United States government' as helping to surveil or detain Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang." These are all changes that would reduce transparency and make it easier to import goods from the region. Nevertheless, Apple claimed it was not trying to weaken the bill and "believes the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act should become law."

The New York Times also reported that Nike and Coca-Cola were attempting to water down the legislation. Nike said that it “did not lobby against” the bill "but instead had 'constructive discussions' with congressional staff aides." Coca-Cola was even less forthcoming, saying that "it complies with all laws associated with its political activities."

Industry groups oppose anti-slave labor bill

Industry lobbying groups, however, are less circumspect. The American Apparel and Footwear Association, which represents Gap, Hanes, New Balance, L.L. Bean, and hundreds of other major brands, issued a statement in September stating that it opposed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act as written. (You can find the full membership list here.) The industry group said the legislation "would establish a 'guilty until proven innocent' blanket standard, directly contradicting U.S. jurisprudence and due process." The industry group said it was "ready to work with all stakeholders to find an enforceable solution that effectively protects human rights" but offered few details on what kind of action it would support. 

The apparel and footwear industry is reliant on the region as a source of cotton. "Xinjiang produces 85 percent of China’s and 20 percent of the world’s cotton," according to a report released this month by the Center for Global Policy. Much of this is harvested through manual labor. The Center for Global Policy report found that "in 2018, three Uyghur regions alone mobilized at least 570,000 persons into cotton-picking operations through the government’s coercive labor training and transfer scheme." The region "continues to rely strongly on manual labor," with "about 70 percent of the region’s cotton fields had to be picked by hand." It is grueling work. 

The United States Chamber of Commerce, the business lobbying group that represents most major corporations, also explicitly opposed the bill. It said the legislation would "prove ineffective and may hinder efforts to prevent human rights abuses." The group said it wanted to work "with Congress and the administration to ensure that workable, appropriate actions and initiatives are implemented to aid the Uyghurs" but provided no specifics. 

On December 15, the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region wrote to 17 leading consumer brands — Adidas, Amazon, Apple, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Gap, Heinz, Inditex, Kohl’s, L Brands, Nike, Nordstrom, PVH, Ross, Target, TJX, and Walmart — and asked them to "come clean about their stance on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act." The letter posed a series of piercing questions:

  • Does your company support the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act as passed by the US House of Representatives, without amendment?  If not, what is the basis of your opposition to the legislation, as passed?

  • Is your company lobbying against this legislation in Congress, either via your own employees or through lobbyists or lobbying firms? If so, how much money has your company spent on these lobbying efforts?

  • Is your company advocating for any alteration of the legislation as passed by the House? If so, what specific changes have you proposed and what is the justification for each of these changes?

The group called for the Senate to pass the legislation "as a standalone bill or as part of the larger omnibus budget." But the 116th Congress is drawing to a close and still has to pass government funding for the next year and a coronavirus relief package. If the bill does not pass the Senate in the next few days, the legislative process would have to begin anew in 2021. 

It's a feature, not a bug

The primary objection to the legislation by corporations is that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prove that products from the region were not produced using slave labor. They are right, and that's the point. 

At present, corporations rely on third-party auditors to look for evidence that their suppliers aren't reliant on slave labor. If they are unable to find such evidence, they give the corporation a clean bill of health. 

But a bipartisan report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China warned "against relying on auditing of supply chains in the XUAR [Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region] given the impossibility of obtaining accurate information from the region." It is nearly impossible to receive "reliable testimony on the working conditions at factories in the XUAR due to a coercive environment for detainees." Auditors are "more likely to endanger workers than yield reliable evidence."

Recognizing this reality, in recent months, "[a]t least five organizations say they won’t help companies audit their supply chains in China’s Xinjiang region, where human-rights activists say a police-state atmosphere and government controls make it too difficult to determine whether factories and farms are relying on forced labor." 

If the legislation passed, "[p]roviding proof of the absence of forced labor in a region riddled with it will prove costly in some cases and impossible in most others." In response, "corporations may simply cease sourcing from Xinjiang altogether." That could be exactly what is needed. If major companies pull out of the region, the Chinese regime might finally feel compelled to curtail its human rights abuses. 

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