The U.S. Senate approved a bill Thursday that would ban all imports from Xinjiang, the latest American pushback against China’s treatment of its Muslim-minority Uyghur population.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act would ban all imports from the western Chinese region unless it can be determined with “clear and convincing evidence” that they were not made with forced labor. The bill will head next to U.S. President Joe Biden, whose office has already stated publicly that he would sign it into law.
In addition to producing 22 percent of global cotton, Xinjiang is a major exporter of tomato-based products, materials used in solar panels and electrical equipment.
The legislation adds to mounting pressure from the U.S. and other countries on China’s human rights record. The Biden administration also revealed sanctions this week on several Chinese companies including DJI, the world’s largest drone-maker, and facial recognition companies due to their alleged involvement in mass surveillance in the region.
And earlier this month, the U.K., Canada and Australia followed the U.S.’ lead on a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Beijing denies any oppression but multiple governments and rights groups have raised concerns that China is committing genocide in Xinjiang. More than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are thought to be held in internment camps in the region.
The Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region immediately praised the bill’s Senate passage.
“We applaud the House and Senate for passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, despite opposition from many of the nation’s most powerful corporations,” the coalition said. “By sharply constraining corporate complicity in forced labor, and putting real economic pressure on the Chinese government, this bill gives renewed hope to oppressed people across the Uyghur region.”
It also added that companies can take steps to act now instead of waiting for the bill to go into effect.
“We urge fashion brands, solar companies and other corporations to join Marks & Spencer, Reformation and Asos in publicly committing to these steps necessary to ensure there is no Uyghur forced labor in their supply chains,” it said.
The bill’s passage was also applauded by the American Apparel and Footwear Association, National Association of Foreign-Trade Zone, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders Association and the United States Fashion Industry Association.
“We look forward to President Biden quickly signing this bill into law and to working with [U.S. Customs and Border Protections] on crafting a smart, comprehensive, effective and enforceable strategy to carry it out,” a joint statement by the associations said Thursday.
A November paper by the Sheffield Hallam University found that despite a January ban of Xinjiang cotton, the material is still finding its way to American consumers. The report focused on five Chinese firms known to source cotton from Xinjiang and which export via intermediary suppliers based in Southeast and South Asia.
The intermediaries then go on to sell to clients that are some of the best-known names in global fashion including Walmart, Target, Macy’s, PVH Corp., Gap, Lululemon and Everlane. The report authors also said standard auditing techniques often fail to weed out tainted cotton given the inaccessibility of the Xinjiang, requiring a new and more comprehensive approach.