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Many have heeded the battle cry against forced labor — but the battle plan still needs to be agreed on.

When a subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee convened virtually on Thursday to look at how the U.S. should enforce the ban on imports produced by forced labor, there was broad condemnation of the treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang province. 

Finding an unusual amount of common ground for Washington, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, activists, a union representative and a key fashion lobbyist all railed against conditions in Xinjiang, which produces about 20 percent of the world’s cotton. 

While activists pushed broadly for a blanket ban on goods made in the far Western province, saying it is impossible to ensure exports from the province weren’t made with forced labor, the fashion industry has pushed for coordinated government-to-government interaction, while stressing the difficulty of ensuring cotton in the supply chain comes from elsewhere. 

But all argued for more action — the need for which was laid bare in the testimony of Rushan Abbas, founder and executive director of the Campaign for Uyghurs. 

“At present, upward of 3 million Uyghurs are languishing in concentration camps set up by the Chinese regime in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, referred to by Uyghurs by its historic name, East Turkistan,” Abbas said. “Millions more are being used as forced labor in factories and farms throughout the region, and even across China. While the existence of these camps was initially denied by the Chinese authorities, the narrative given by the regime has shifted to admit their existence, but to define them as ‘vocational training centers.’ Now the Chinese Communist Party leaders have shifted to label an entire group of people in need of ‘reeducation’ in order to be in line with Chinese socialism as Xi Jin Ping defines it. It is genocide.”

She said her sister, a retired medical doctor, lived a quiet life as a law-abiding citizen and was not particularly religious or political, but disappeared just over two years ago, shortly after Abbas spoke out against the treatment of the Uyghurs. 

“She was taken in retaliation for my activism here, as an American, and since that time I have had no news of her,” Abbas said. “Her own children were not told why she was detained, which camp she is held in, or how her current health is.…We wonder if she is being forced to make the clothing and shoes that adorn the bodies of our countrymen. I am wracked with guilt that using my freedom of speech and a democratic platform resulted in punishment for her, but this is the situation for millions of Uyghurs, and every Uyghur in diaspora has to weigh the choice of silence versus speaking out with the risk of losing family.”

Steve Lamar, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, said fashion has “zero tolerance for forced labor” and that “the situation in the XUAR is grave and unprecedented. The Chinese government is engaging in a widespread campaign to repress and exploit Uighur and other ethnicities using many tactics, including forced and prison labor. This is intolerable. Our country and the world must unite to stop it.”

While the U.S. government recently moved to ban imports from certain operators via withhold release orders impacting imports at the border, Lamar pointed to rumors of a blanket ban that would declare all cotton from the region as made with forced labor. 

“Such a [withhold release order] would no doubt make headlines, but it would wreak unending havoc to human rights, economic development and legitimate supply chains — which are already battered by COVID-19 — all over the world,” he said. 

Lamar said cotton from the region could make its way into yarns and fabrics in countries as far flung as Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Haiti. 

“As a country, we simply do not have the capability or capacity to implement, comply with, or enforce a blanket WRO,” he said.  

But Scott Nova, executive director of the  Worker Rights Consortium, testified that the problems are so severe that the only way brands can ensure they are not using forced labor is to “end all sourcing from the Uyghur Region, from cotton to finished goods,” which includes the more than 2 billion pieces of apparel that are cleared through U.S. ports each year.

“Apparel brands have no ability to keep the farms and factories they use free of forced labor,” Nova said. 

He argued that brands are able to track the origins of the raw materials they use, pointing out that they regularly certify where their supplies come from to adhere to trade agreements.

Even so, a ban on one-fifth of the world’s cotton supply would be a massive undertaking.

“If a ban is enacted, through legislation or a region-wide WRO, enforcement will be complicated by the fact that almost none of the apparel with Uyghur Region content is shipped to the U.S. from the Uyghur Region,” Nova said. “ It comes instead from sewing factories, across China and around the world, that use fabric fashioned from Uyghur Region cotton and yarn. Unless seeking preferential tariff treatment, brands disclose nothing about the origins of cotton and yarn in their clothes. Effective enforcement by [Customs and Border Protection] will require robust independent methods to verify the source of cotton and yarn in imported garments, backed up by thorough public reporting.”

The committee is currently in fact-finding mode and working to craft U.S. policy to address the issue. 

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