After legislation aiming to counter forced labor in the Chinese province of Xinjiang saw success in the U.S. House of Representatives, significant corporate lobbying has targeted the legislation in the Senate.
Critics have characterized the lobbying as an effort to weaken the bill, while several major companies have argued their policies already seek to remove forced labor from their supply chains.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act passed the House on Sept. 22 by a vote of 406-3.
The legislation would treat all goods imported from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the far west as being created with forced labor, unless certified otherwise by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It would also require disclosures from businesses that engage with Chinese companies and would authorize sanctions on anyone determined to be responsible for labor trafficking of Uyghurs.
An estimated 1 million or more Uyghurs, members of a Muslim ethnoreligious minority group, have been detained in “re-education camps” in Xinjiang, which were first spotted on satellite imagery in 2017.
The Chinese government at one time denied the camps existed, but has since shifted to defending its actions as an appropriate terrorism prevention measure.
Those inside the camps are reportedly subjected to forced labor, torture, and political indoctrination. Women who have been imprisoned in the camps have told stories of forced abortions and sterilizations.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act notes that the U.S. State Department determined in its 2019 human trafficking report that subsidies are offered to Chinese companies for opening factories near the internment camps.
If passed and signed into law, the bill would instruct the Secretary of State to determine whether the treatment of Uyghurs inside the internment camps constitutes genocide or other crimes against humanity, and to create a plan of response.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China, a bipartisan group of legislators, issued a March report listing companies that have been suspected of using forced labor in Xinjiang. These include Adidas, Calvin Klein, Campbell Soup Company, Coca-Cola, Costco, H&M, Nike, Patagonia, and Tommy Hilfiger among others.
Some companies are lobbying to have their names removed from the forced labor prevention bill, which specifically accuses them of using forced labor from Xinjiang.
Lobbyists from multinational companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have criticized the bill and dedicated resources to changing it, The New York Times and Washington Post reported last month.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined seven other industry groups in a November letter saying they have a history of fighting forced labor. They advocated a comprehensive effort using the presidential administration, Congress, and foreign governments to address forced labor.
Critics of the bill worry it creates a “presumption of forced labor” which is difficult for accused companies to counter. Human rights advocates say that China has transferred Uyghur Muslims out of Xinjiang to work elsewhere in the country and it is difficult for any U.S. company with operations in China to ensure it isn't benefiting from forced labor.
A March report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said O-Film Technology, a contractor for Apple, Microsoft and Google, among other companies, has received at least 700 Uyghur workers as part of a program that aims to “gradually alter their ideology.”
Foxconn Technology and other suppliers of Apple take part in similar employment programs.
Apple has suggested changes to the bill like extending compliance deadlines, releasing some supply chain information to congressional committees rather than to the public, and requiring the U.S. government to designate Chinese entities that help surveil or detain Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang, the New York Times reports.
Apple has disputed claims it wants to weaken the proposed law. The company said it backs stronger regulation and wants the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act to become law, the New York Times reports. The company claims to have the strongest supplier conduct code in its industry, and its assessments include surprise audits.
“Looking for the presence of forced labor is part of every supplier assessment we conduct and any violations of our policies carry immediate consequences, including business termination,” Apple said in a statement.
“Earlier this year, we conducted a detailed investigation with our suppliers in China and found no evidence of forced labor on Apple production lines and we are continuing to monitor this closely.”
However, Cathy Feingold, director of the international department for the AFL-CIO labor union, countered that “What Apple would like is we all just sit and talk and not have any real consequences.”
“They’re shocked because it’s the first time where there could be some actual effective enforceability,” she told the Washington Post.
Xinjiang produces raw materials including cotton, coal, sugar, tomatoes and polysilicon. Its workforce includes apparel and footwear factory workers.
Nike has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in 2020 to lobby Congress and government agencies on Xinjiang-related legislation, and Coca-Cola's millions in lobbying expenditures include lobbying on the act. In March Nike said its products do not have sources in Xinjiang and it has confirmed its suppliers do not use yarn or textiles from the region.
Nike said that a factory in Qingdao, a major city in the eastern Shangdong province, stopped hiring new workers from Xinjiang in 2019, citing an independent audit's reports that there were no Xinjiang employees there. However, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report cited state media reports indicating around 800 Uyghur workers were there at the end of 2019 and made over seven million pairs of Nike shoes each year.
The Trump administration has taken action to block the import of some goods from the Xinjiang region and to sanction companies growing cotton in the area.
However, lawmakers sought additional action to respond to concerns that companies are profiting from the forced labor taking place in the internment camps, which have been compared to the concentration camps under Nazi Germany.
U.S. law already bars the importation of goods made with forced labor, but the law is rarely enforced and violations are hard to prove, the Washington Post said.