The US Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act Still Has Serious Flaws

In September 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act with an astounding 406-3 vote in favor. This event marked a remarkable bipartisan roar at a time where the two parties were stubbornly polarized. The proposed bill, however, ended up sitting in the Senate, and thus failed to make it into hard law by the end of the congressional session.

Fast forward 15 months later and forced labor has yet again become a topic of great discussion within the halls of the U.S. Capitol. On December 8, the U.S. House of Representative re-voted on the same bill, and this time it passed the house with a 428-1 vote in favor.

A version of the bill introduced by Senator Marco Rubio passed the Senate in July and was then referred to the House. Notably, Rubio had lobbied to amend the House bill to remove the reporting requirement, where publicly traded companies would have to report their operations in China to the Securities and Exchange Committee. Rubio’s own version of the bill did not include the reporting requirement.

On December 14, Representative Jim McGovern, the sponsor of the House version, tweeted that he had “reached an agreement [with Senator Rubio] on the final text of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.” This was followed by a statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, where she reassured that the bill will be passed and moved to the “Senate for swift action and then to the President’s desk for his signature.”

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Most notably, the consolidated version of the bill removes the reporting requirement and reduces the amount of time for corporations to come into compliance with the law once enacted, from 300 days (Rubio’s version) to 180 days (McGovern’s).

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Why the rush to consolidate the bills, without much time for debate or discussion? It would be fair to assume that both parties would like a law to be enacted before the Winter Olympics take place in China. The administration has issued an official boycott of the games.

However, rushing the proposed legislation could potentially undermine the effectiveness of the bill. The main questions that remain are: How important was the reporting requirement, and why are large corporations lobbying against the bill?

With the Xinjiang region in China accounting for 20 percent of the world’s cotton production and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency stating that they detained over $410 million worth of cargo suspected of being produced with forced labor in 2021, the global supply chains are starting to shudder. Imposing a reporting requirement would create logistical nightmares, as most corporations are connected to Xinjiang in one way or another. This doesn’t only apply to the apparel industry, but many others including the solar industry. The reporting requirement would require companies to immediately reassess and cease operations in their current supply chains, whereas now they can buy some time to do so.

The current consolidated bill creates a presumption that all goods produced in Xinjiang are made with forced labor. This means that corporations will have to start looking for different regions to source from. Given that this legislation has been looming in the chambers for some time now, intermediary factories have already been set up. In November 2021, Sheffield Hallam University published a report titled “Laundering Cotton.” The report states, “more than half of China’s exports of cotton semi-finished products are destined for countries within Asia… once there, international intermediary factories produce finished garments.” The report also includes intermediary manufacturers located across all of Asia, illustrating how this phenomenon virtually has no borders. All this is done in an effort to reduce traceability and accountability. The end result is that a product sourced from another country could still have been made in part by Uyghurs forced labor.

The reporting requirement could have been the redeeming clause of the bill, specifically for the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. It seems as if politics took priority over adopting an effective approach to protect human rights for the Uyghur population. It’s been a year and a half since the first bills were introduced, and all this time waiting makes little sense. Instead, it has allowed companies to secure intermediaries in third countries that will help them “launder” products made in Xinjiang.

However, some hope still remains. In September 2020, the Forced Labor Disclosure act passed the House, imposing the reporting requirement, yet it met the same fate as the original Forced Labor Prevention Act. When the Disclosure Act was re-introduced in the House in March 2021, it was never able to find the traction it had found the year before. Although it remains a dormant bill, Congress could push the proposal and eventually turn it into law, especially once legislators realize that the Forced Labor Prevention Act will not change much of the status quo. This could be the last hope for the Uyghur population to actually see effective legislation. Having companies report to the Securities and Exchange Commission would ensure that companies limit their suppliers of goods to the American market, and hold themselves as well as their suppliers accountable.

While the Western world talks about introducing legislation, and guidance to assist companies operating in Xinjiang, the world seems to ignore the fact that the Uyghur situation is not improving. On December 9, an independent U.K. tribunal found that the Chinese government committed genocide and committed crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. The independent tribunal was set up in an effort to raise civil society’s voice given that China’s U.N. veto power would never lead to an indictment through the internationally recognized tribunals.

The tribunal’s finding, although non-binding, provides a deep sense of reality of the Uyghur plight. It even goes as far as to implicate “the highest authority in China.” It is now time for the larger economies to act beyond the issuance of blunt sanctions and proposition of bills. It is time for nations to put human rights first and address supply chain concerns in China effectively. The core reason why Uyghurs continue to work in re-education camps is because they produce products that the Western world demands. It’s time for bills that can address this problem to go beyond mere proposals and into black letter law. Until then, civil society must boycott products from the region and call for real transparency from the larger corporations.