The law is a direct response to the widespread, well-documented reports of crimes against humanity in the Uyghur regions — and the fact that the reactions from most global brands to the issue have been, to put it lightly, disappointing.
A big change is coming for companies and brands that source anything from China. Within a few weeks, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) will come into effect. Passed late last year with bi-partisan support, the bill was created after several reports and investigations found that a variety of goods being produced by Uyghur workers in conditions of forced labor were being imported into the United States.
“Companies, now, should be understanding whether or not they are already in violation of the law,” Allison Gill, forced labor program director at Washington, DC-based nonprofit Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum told Sustainable Brands™. “I'd be really interested to know how they are doing that.”
The bill will make due diligence on supply chains linked to Xinjiang, the Chinese name for the Uyghur homeland in the west of the country, no longer optional.
“It does put a really high bar on companies,” Joanna Ewart-James, Executive Director of Freedom United, told SB. “Companies are responsible for ensuring that the goods that are coming into the US are not produced by forced labor. It's the type of legislation that we haven't seen before; but it makes complete sense.”
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It is necessary, as a new report from the C4ADS finds that several goods from Xinjiang are readily entering global supply chains. While cotton and garments have gotten the most attention, they also identified poly-silicon (used in solar manufacturing), pepper, tomatoes, beryllium, wind turbines and calcium carbide.
The law is a direct response to the widespread, well-documented reports of crimes against humanity in the Uyghur regions; the largest system of concentration camps since World War II, housing perhaps as many as three million Uyghurs and other mostly Turkic Muslim minorities. Alongside this is ongoing cultural genocide as Mosques, cemeteries, shrines, and historic Uyghur neighborhoods have all been destroyed. In fact, there is increasingly irrefutable evidence that mass-scale, state-sanctioned forced labor of Uyghurs is being used in farms and factories throughout the region.
The law is also a response to the fact that the reactions from most global brands have been, to put it lightly, disappointing. Few, if any, have been proactive at limiting their exposure to supply chains connected to the Uyghur regions; some brands even lobbied against this bill.
The UFLPA would work by presuming that all goods manufactured in Xinjiang are made with forced labor, unless otherwise certified by US Customs and Border Protection. It also mandates companies to disclose their dealing in Xinjiang and will create lists of Chinese companies that have used forced labor and prohibit companies from sourcing from them.
The UFLPA is just one law in one country, but it may be a sign of things to come. Germany, Europe’s largest market, passed a mandatory human rights due diligence law last year that states companies “must identify risks of human rights violations and environmental destruction at direct suppliers and, if they gain substantiated knowledge of a potential abuse, also at indirect suppliers.”
Moreover, draft European Union (EU) Mandatory Due Diligence regulations could also put a higher impetus on large European brands to engage with workers and address labor, social and environmental risks in their supply chains — or face potential legal and civil liability.
“It’s a historic opportunity to really scale good practices up, and make it mandatory for all large companies in the EU market,” Johannes Blankenbach, Senior Western Europe Researcher at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, told SB.
The reason for this goes beyond the situation in Xinjiang. There is a growing recognition that, despite a few noteworthy exceptions, the brand-led voluntary compliance system has not worked in addressing labor rights violations in global supply chains. Part of the reason is that it creates an uneven playing field — ethical brands pay more to source from ethical suppliers, while the ones who don’t care about human rights can give lower prices to cost-conscious consumers.
“There are a few leaders, and many laggards in this area,” Blankenbach says. “After years of voluntary implementation, progress has been too slow. And many companies agree with that.”
For human rights advocates who, since 2018, have been raising alarm bells about what has been happening to Uyghurs in China, the UFLPA is welcomed; but it’s just the first step.
“It's encouraging that there has been some movement as a result of sustained pressure on these companies, but far more will be required before we eliminate Uyghur forced labor and the atrocities directly connected to it,” Peter Irwin, with the non-profit Uyghur Human Rights Project, told Sustainable Brands.
The era of voluntary self-regulation, when it comes to labor violations in your supply chain, may be over. If brands want to continue to source from the developing world, and especially China, they’re going to have to do more to ensure that they aren't — intentionally or unintentionally — enabling forced labor, or, in the case of the Uyghurs, genocide.