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Rethinking Trade - Season 1 Episode 14: Did You Buy PPE Made by Uyghur Forced Labor in China?

China has 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic-minorities locked up in concentration camps in western China. Others are being shipped all over the country as forced-laborers to a network of factories supplying Nike and a slew of other U.S. companies, including those producing PPE. You may be buying these products thanks to loopholes in U.S. trade laws that are supposed to ban the sale of forced labor goods.

On this episode we discuss efforts currently underway to end the exploitation of China’s Muslim political prisoners, the latest from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and how good trade policies rooted in human and labor rights could prevent such nightmare scenarios in the first place. Learn more about the campaign at enduyghurforcedlabour.org.

Transcribed by Kaley Joss

Ryan: 

Welcome back to Rethinking Trade, where we don't just talk about trade policy, we fight to change it. I'm Ryan, and I'm joined once again by our in-house trade expert Lori Wallach. 

So Lori, Public Citizen is part of a campaign that was announced last week calling on brands and retailers to stop doing business in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China. For those who don't know much about the situation, what exactly is going on there and why have 190 organizations across the world signed on to this call?

Lori:

So while a lot of the world is very focused, understandably, on the COVID crisis, an enormous human rights crisis is underway in the western part of China. The Chinese government operating out of Beijing has rounded up almost two million Muslims, many of them Uyghurs, a turkic ethnic group in the western part of China, and locked them up in concentration camps under the ostensible claim that they're ‘countering Islamic extremism.’

But the reality, just like the government in Beijing has attacked Tibetans, has attacked any group that has any notion of autonomy of its own culture, it is really a genocide against the culture and perhaps literally people are being killed. There is torture. These are concentration camps. And there's a lot of forced labor. People are being shipped across China from the camps, but even inside the camps there is forced labor, and horrifically a bunch of it is PPE. The New York Times had an exposé on that just this week. There were five plants in Xinjiang that produced PPE a year ago. There are now 51 plants making face masks, 17 of which officially are part of the forced labor operation. 

Ryan: 

For those of us in the United States, this is especially relevant also because a number of U.S. companies are actually benefiting from this system of forced labor. That is sadly not a new thing. When it comes to the Chinese government's labor abuses, they've often come as a result of collaboration between state and U.S. and other international firms, especially since China's entry into the World Trade Organization, right?

Lori:
Yes, that is unfortunately true. So just to put into perspective what's going on, there was another New York Times exposé in the beginning of March, March 1, that showed how many of these forced labor Uyghur workers are in a plant making Nike shoes. So throughout the supply chain of goods that can come into the U.S., thanks to China's entry into the WTO, without any conditions or any special human rights surveillance and with low tariffs, are goods that are being made by literally millions of political prisoners. 

And this is a crisis of such a scale that the U.S. Holocaust Museum Center for the Prevention of Genocide has recently determined there's a reasonable basis to believe that crimes against humanity are being committed there. Yet many U.S. companies are using this forced labor. The U.S. consumer to a large degree is either unaware, or if aware, has really no way to see that these products are kept out, or are distinguished under the current law since under WTO,  you can't really distinguish a good based on what's happening on a human rights basis, for instance. Now, there is legislation called the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, that's bipartisan, that is in the House and the Senate, that would just simply assume any goods coming from the Xinjiang part of China, the western part of China,  are likely to have forced labor content. It has a presumption, that can be rebutted, that any such goods from that region cannot come in because they're forced labor products. The company that wants to bring it in has to prove by clear and convincing evidence standard that the entire supply chain, not just their factory, is clean of forced labor. 

Ryan:

So, you kind of answered this but aside from the obvious fact that there's goods being produced in the Uyghur region and then sold elsewhere, what does this all have to do with trade policy and how have trade policies made the situation possible? But also, is this even legal under current trade rules? 

Lori: 

So, there is a chance that that law could get challenged at the WTO. But thank goodness the WTO enforcement system is basically not functioning at the moment because the U.S. is objected to the way it is not very fair or transparent.

So, the back story is that since the 1930s there has been law in the Tariff Act of 1930 that prohibits the import to the United States of goods “mined, produced or manufactured wholly or in part” by convict, forced or indentured labor. And obviously that's a very broad prohibition. The hitch was that the law had an exception called the Consumptive Demand, which basically allowed goods and services even if they were made by forced labor, if the good was not made in the U.S. in a sufficient supply to meet domestic demand, which basically guts the law. In 2016, President Obama signed a piece of legislation that closed that loophole. And as a result, ostensibly, it is now U.S. law that forced labor groups have to be kept out. And that change was actually motivated by child labor in the cocoa industry, in seafood, but also about what was going on in cotton, as well as what was not as extreme repression against Uyghur people, but already was some pretty dire circumstances in China and also in sub-Saharan Africa relating to cotton. So the Customs and Border Patrol has taken a few actions since that law

changed in the beginning of 2016, and it's certainly a lot better. I mean, there are like 40 actions in the 90 years of the original law with the exception and now there have been 15, 20 actions since. But the problem is, you under the law basically have to prove that there is forced labor. What the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would do is just simply presume— it would flip the burden of proof, so that Customs doesn't have to prove that a particular good, one by one, is made with forced labor and therefore meets the Trade Act of 1930 ban. But rather the presumption becomes, if it is coming from the basically Uyghur Autonomous Region, sometimes called the XUAR, then you presume it is forced labor, and the company has the burden of proving it's not. Which is to say, all that stuff will be stopped until a company can show it is clean. That would really put teeth into the existing law, because if customs had to prove product by product, you would not be able to make much of a dent. But if the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act went into effect, that would just shut down the imports from the area with very few exceptions, and that would send a very strong signal to China, which is the least the U.S. can do, given the horrific circumstances that right now the government in Beijing is largely getting away with.

Ryan: And to close this out maybe, this sounds like policies that are designed to kind of put out fires after they've started. What would be some trade rules and enforcement mechanisms that would prevent these types of things from happening in the first place? You know, it shouldn't take a situation of this magnitude to take action on something as obviously wrong as, you know, forced prison labor. 

Lori:

It is a sad state of affairs that you need two million people in concentration camps being tortured, murdered, forced into labor, indoctrinated, stripped from their homes, young women bundled up onto planes and buses and shipped all over China where they don't actually speak the language of where they've been settled, they’re not allowed to go home. You would assume none of that would have to happen to have some rules of decency in the global economy. But unfortunately the way that the WTO and most of our free trade agreements work, there really is no floor of decency. There's no standard that says, “you can't have the benefits of this trade agreement unless you do X Y or Z.” 

Rather, they're written where, instead of having a floor, there's a ceiling. You can't distinguish between goods based on the human rights of the workers; you can't distinguish with the goods based on how much they're paid; you can't distinguish between the goods, as long as they're physically the same, according to their environmental impacts in the production process. That is a ‘bass-ackwards’ way of thinking about it. So, both for human decency and morality stopping forced labor, but frankly as well for the climate crisis that we face, we need to turn the rules the other way around, where we're seeing the standards for which every company and every country must comply in order to get the benefits of the trade rules and the labor standards in the news.

The labor standards in the new NAFTA make some attempt to do that in a very narrow way. And we will see, as an experiment, it's a baby step. It's certainly a step in the right direction, but it doesn't fix the problem. We will see how effective that approach is. But yeah, you just need to basically condition access into countries on meeting human standards for labor rights, human rights and the environment and safety.

 

And the thing is, those rules exist. It's not a matter of saying “Hey, you can't sell anything here unless you do everything the same way as U.S. law requires.” No, all of the countries that are also partners in trade agreements, are, as sovereign nations, signatories to things like the International Labor Organization's conventions that guarantee basic labor rights. They're all signatories, China included, to the United Nations’s two major human rights treaties, one on economic rights and one on political rights. It basically is going to take changing the rules, to give the human rules the priority over the commercial rules, because right now it's the other way around. And in fact, if the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act were passed and the WTO were working, China probably could have declared an illegal trade barrier. So that makes it pretty clear as well as doing things like passing this emergency ban on these goods, we need to redo the rules of the global economy. 

Ryan:

Thanks so much Lori. If you're listening to this, take a look at the links in the description of this episode. There is a link to the campaign to end Uyghur Forced Labor in China. There's also a link to the house bill, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.


Rethinking Trade is produced by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. I would encourage you to visit rethinktrade.org as well as tradewatch.org to educate yourself and find out how you can get involved in the work we are doing to fight for fairer and more equitable trade policies.

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