Who’s trying to weaken a US bill targeting forced labor in China?

Camps like this “vocational skills” center in Xinjiang are used as internment sites for Uyghurs.
Camps like this “vocational skills” center in Xinjiang are used as internment sites for Uyghurs.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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A coalition of groups calling for an end to the repression of Uyghurs in China is demanding a number of prominent companies come clean about their lobbying and other actions to alter or weaken a proposed bill targeting imports made with Uyghur forced labor.

Among the companies it has asked to publicly disclose their activities are Apple, Nike, Walmart, Adidas, Gap, and several others.

The group, called the Coalition to End Forced Labor in the Uyghur Region, is made up of organizations such as AFL-CIO, a large federation of US trade unions; the UK non-profit Anti-Slavery International; Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor rights watchdog; and several Uyghur advocacy groups.

The bill in question is the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would block products from China’s western Xinjiang region unless companies can prove that forced labor was not involved in their making. Xinjiang is home to China’s predominately Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority, which has been subject to extensive repression and human rights abuses including sterilization, leading observers to liken the campaign against them to genocide. Ample evidence shows many are being herded into internment camps and pressed into forced labor under the guise of “poverty alleviation” programs, though China denies the allegations.

Xinjiang is a fixture in the supply chains of numerous international corporations. It produces goods such as textiles, electronics, toys, and plastics, and it is the epicenter of China’s large cotton industry, meaning it touches the supply chains of countless clothing and footwear companies.

The bill would create a presumption that all products originating in the region are tainted by forced labor, putting the burden on companies to show they are not. It would also ban items from entities taking part in programs that transfer Uyghurs to other parts of China as labor.

In September it passed the House of Representatives by a margin of 406 to 3. Its next hurdle is to pass the Senate, where it is believed to have enough support from both parties to move forward.

US congressional representative James McGovern, a Massachusetts democrat, is the author of the bill and championed the efforts to call out corporations that might be undermining the legislation. “For more than two years, global corporations have been aware that forced labor is in use throughout the Xinjiang region,” he said during a Dec. 15 press briefing held by the coalition. “They should be reassessing their supply chains and finding alternatives that do not exploit workers or violate human rights. Instead, corporate lobbyists have been hired to contact senators to try to water down the strongest provisions of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.”

The Washington Post and New York Times have reported that companies such as Apple and Nike have been quietly working to alter the legislation. But exactly what changes, if any, they are seeking is unclear.

“Unsurprisingly, brands and retailers involved in efforts to influence the outcome of the legislative process have tried to obscure their activities,” Scott Nova, executive director of WRC, said during the briefing. “There are brands that are lobbying that insist they’re not trying to weaken the bill or defeat the bill, but haven’t disclosed what specific changes they are seeking.”

He added some brands and retailers are trying to influence the legislation even if what they’re doing doesn’t meet the legal definition of lobbying, while others aren’t lobbying lawmakers directly but instead working with trade associations that are.

What companies say

Quartz reached out to several companies contacted by the coalition to disclose their activities, including Nike, Apple, Adidas, Walmart, Gap, Inditex (owner of Zara), and PVH Corp (owner of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein).

A spokesperson for Inditex provided part of a letter the company sent in reply to the coalition, stating it has not lobbied itself, or through any trade association or lobbying firm, against the bill or sought any changes. It said it hasn’t been in contact with any member of congress or any committee either about it.

PVH Corp said it “has not taken any action through employees, lobbyists or others” to oppose the bill or weaken its provisions.

Nike provided a statement saying it “has not lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.” It did say it routinely provides “insight to Members of Congress, congressional staff and other government officials on a wide range of public policy issues.”

Adidas did not address whether it has been lobbying on the bill, only saying it has never sourced goods from Xinjiang. It noted that after concerns arose in 2019 about cotton yarn made with forced labor entering its supply chain, it explicitly instructed its suppliers not to source any yarn from the region.

No other company Quartz contacted offered any comment. We will update this story with any additional replies.

Apple previously told the Washington Post it supports the goals of the legislation, and a document seen by the New York Times indicated what edits it was pursuing. They included extending compliance deadlines and pulling back on a provision that would publicly reveal supply chain information and provide it instead only to congressional committees.

One organization that has been forthcoming about wanting revisions, though it has refrained from detailing them publicly, is the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), a large trade group with some 300 members representing about 1,000 brands. After the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act passed the house, it released a statement in conjunction with other trade associations. “We share the goals of the legislation—to end forced labor and the larger campaign of oppression it is fueling—yet we fear this bill will not help us get closer to that end goal,” it said.

Many items produced in Xinjiang don’t travel directly to the US. Products such as cotton and textiles can journey through multi-stage supply chains that take them to countries such as Vietnam or Bangladesh before they are shipped to American shores, making them difficult to trace. Targeting Xinjiang alone won’t solve the problem, AAFA noted.

The group contends the bill as it stands will also be effectively impossible for companies to comply with, since they will have to prove the negative of not having forced labor in their supply chains. Most will just have to abandon the region, penalizing the legal, voluntary workers there. It argues a multinational coalition of countries and other stakeholders is the only way to exert enough leverage on China to change its behavior on the ground in Xinjiang.

In a statement, Nate Herman, senior vice president of policy for the AAFA, said it’s critical to end the forced labor in Xinjiang and that the AAFA is “lobbying for Congress to pass this legislation in a form that will accomplish this goal. We have proposed several changes to make the legislation enforceable and effective, and to target those responsible.” The AAFA would not elaborate on what revisions it is seeking.

The intent of the bill

Human rights groups have argued forced labor is so widespread in Xinjiang there is no way for companies to be certain their operations in the region are free of abuses. Several auditing firms have even stopped working in the region because they can’t effectively perform their jobs under the tight restrictions of Chinese authorities. At the Dec. 15 briefing, Nova of WRC said any brands or retailers trying to dilute or eliminate the part of the bill presuming forced labor is involved in all products from Xinjiang is “seeking to cut the heart out of the legislation.”

According to McGovern, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act is intended to force China to end forced labor of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, as well as to ensure US consumers aren’t buying products made with forced labor. “Companies need to move their supply chains, plain and simple,” he said.

It’s unclear how effective the bill would be at coercing China to end its repression of Uyghurs, since it is a unilateral action against one of the world’s biggest economies. In the European Union, however, pressure has grown on lawmakers to act. This week, the European Parliament condemned China over the forced labor of Uyghurs and will reportedly urge EU leaders to sanction Chinese officials responsible for abuses in Xinjiang.

Rushan Abbas, founder and executive director of the Campaign for Uyghurs, a group advocating for Uyghurs in China, offered another potential strength of the US legislation at the Dec. 15 briefing. “It also serves as a valuable example for what could be recreated by other nations in terms of addressing their own complicity in importing products manufactured with Uyghur forced labor,” she said.

US president-elect Joe Biden has indicated he believes the US must reassert itself as a global leader. For the bill’s supporters, it could be a way to do just that in the campaign to end the repression of Uyghurs in China.