The US is intensifying its crackdown on forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region

Xinjiang cotton is no longer welcome in the US.
Xinjiang cotton is no longer welcome in the US.
Image: Reuters/Emma Graham-Harrison
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The US government today issued a sweeping ban on imports containing any cotton or tomato products originating in China’s Xinjiang region, where at least 1 million members of the country’s Uyghur ethnic minority are estimated to be held in camps and widely pressed into forced labor.

The order is the most recent effort by the US to pressure China to end a campaign of oppression against the predominately Muslim Uyghurs increasingly likened to genocide and to guard American shoppers from unwittingly purchasing products made with forced labor. Xinjiang is the center of China’s large cotton industry, responsible for as much as 85% of the country’s cotton, and a major producer of tomatoes. Researchers and authorities have compiled ample evidence of Uyghurs being compelled to work the fields and in the factories powering these industries.

The US had already instructed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to detain cotton and cotton products tied to Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a large paramilitary group linked to the camps, in December. It has resulted in the seizure of 43 shipments valued at more than $2 million in total so far, said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of the Office of Trade at CBP, during a media briefing today.

The new order is based on information CBP says “reasonably indicates” forced labor was involved in producing the targeted goods. These include items using cotton or tomato products from Xinjiang but that are assembled or finished elsewhere before they’re shipped to the US.  The ban is likely to affect a range of products, from textiles to canned tomatoes and tomato sauce.

For fashion companies, the stakes are perhaps especially high. Xinjiang supplies an estimated 20% of the world’s cotton. The labor-rights watchdog Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) estimates US brands and retailers import more than 1.5 billion garments containing materials from Xinjiang annually, representing more than $20 billion in retail sales. “Every one of these garments is now barred from entry,” it said in a statement applauding the new CBP order.

Blanket bans of this sort haven’t received support from all corners, however. Trade associations and companies have lobbied against a proposed bill that would block many products from Xinjiang. One group, the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), which has some 300 members representing about 1,000 brands, has argued such bans can be so broad they’re effectively impossible to enforce.

Cotton grown in Xinjiang, for instance, may cross national borders multiple times as it is sent to factories where it’s separately spun into yarn, woven into fabric, and cut and sewn into clothing or other items that are finally shipped to the US. Smith said during the briefing that before CBP can detain a shipment at a US port of entry, it needs evidence the goods are made of or contain cotton or tomato products from Xinjiang. Once CBP blocks entry, it’s up to the company importing the good to prove there was no forced labor involved in its making or raw materials.

The AAFA has said the standard requires companies to prove a negative, which can be difficult. While it acknowledges that companies must have zero tolerance for forced labor, it says many have measures in place to monitor their supply chains, and that the most effective way to end Uyghur forced labor is a multinational coalition. Recently Britain introduced new policies to push companies to cut ties with Xinjiang, though the European Union is moving toward strengthening its economic ties with Beijing despite any human-rights concerns.

In a statement, the AAFA and several other trade groups in fashion and retail asked CBP “to share with industry the evidence gathered, and the evidentiary thresholds used, that led to today’s announcement” and said it will work with CBP on enforcement.

Organizations such as the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) argue forced labor in Xinjiang is so pervasive there’s no way for companies to source from the region and have any reasonable assurance their products aren’t tainted. Of the CBP’s new order, Omer Kanat, executive director of UHRP, said in a statement, “This is the right decision, and more steps are needed.”