uyghurs walking in KASHGAR, CHINA

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is clamping down more on forced labor with a withhold release order to detain apparel and other goods that contain cotton from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. 

The order, which will stop goods at the U.S. border, is based on “information that reasonably indicates the use of forced labor, including convict labor,” according to Customs. 

This is the sixth enforcement action Customs has taken against forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region over the past three months.

“The human rights abuses taking place at the hands of the Chinese Communist government will not be tolerated by President Trump and the American people,” said Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the customs agency. “DHS is taking the lead to enforce our laws to make sure human rights abusers, including U.S. businesses, are not allowed to manipulate our system in order to profit from slave labor. ‘Made in China’ is not just a country of origin, it is a warning label.” 

Federal law prohibits imports of goods that are made by forced labor, including convict labor, forced child labor and indentured labor. 

Companies that have goods stopped at the border will be given a chance to export their merchandise or demonstrate that it was not made with forced labor.

More than one million people from the Uyghur Muslim minority group in the China far west province of Xijiang are in what human rights advocates describe as concentration camps but the Chinese government claims are educational in nature. It is broadly described as the largest internment of an ethnic minority since 1945.

While little apparel is made in the region, it is a key cotton center, accounting for about 20 percent of global cotton output, although much of that goes to the domestic Chinese market. 

Fashion companies have moved away from the region. PVH Corp. has gone further than other major players, declaring it is working to “ensure that our supply chain has no exposure to Xinjiang.” 

Many firms point to the logistical difficulties of proving exactly where the cotton that brands use comes from, but activists paint the picture in starkly moral terms and have been seeking to make fashion companies accountable. Factory auditors, including Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production, or WRAP, have stopped work in the region.

“CBP’s action is a body-blow to every brand that intends to continue sourcing cotton from the Uyghur region,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium, a member of the coalition to End Uyghur Forced Labor. “The XPCC’s operations represent a third of all cotton production in the region, and more than 6 percent of cotton globally. This order will likely impact the supply chains of virtually every major apparel retailer — from Amazon, to Target, to Zara. A ban on all cotton from the region is warranted, and CBP’s action therefore represents a partial step, but the scope is large enough to have a major impact on the apparel industry.”

Nova added, “This is the strongest economic challenge to the Chinese government’s human right abuses in the Uyghur Region to date, and a step toward restoring the rights of Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim peoples across the region.”

The American Apparel & Footwear Association, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association and The United States Fashion Industry Association released a statement condemning forced labor and advocating for a broad approach to take on a big issue.

“Our industry condemns forced labor and strives to eradicate it whether in China or elsewhere in the world,” the statement said. “We are on the front lines of efforts to ensure forced labor does not taint our supply chains or enter the United States. We welcome increased efforts by the U.S. government and other entities to address the human rights abuses, including forced labor and the persecution and detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China. We note that today’s action is focused specifically on XPCC, which is already the subject of sanctions the industry is helping to enforce.”

The statement added, “Forced labor is abhorrent; it is one component of a much larger campaign of oppression. The campaign of oppression in the XUAR region must be addressed holistically to achieve the lasting outcomes we seek to achieve.”