What the UFPLA Means for Human Rights Activists
On June 21, 2022, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) went into effect, signaling a significant victory for human rights activists, who have tirelessly advocated against China’s continued genocide of the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs have been subject to a plethora of human rights violations, from forced detention and labor to mass surveillance and torture at the hands of the Chinese Government.
Now that the UFLPA is in effect, companies with links to the Xinjiang Province must prove that they have not utilized Uyghur forced labor in whole or in part, or they risk having their goods seized at U.S. Customs. The law presumes that any good with links to Xinjiang’s supply chain has benefited from Uyghur forced labor.
While the legislation is a positive step towards combating Uyghur forced labor, it may cause further supply chain issues in an already disrupted global economic market. Key industries such as cotton, tomatoes, and solar have all been linked to forced labor camps in Xinjiang.
Who are the Uyghurs?
While tensions between Uyghurs and Chinese Han have been the status quo for centuries, suppression of Uyghur identity intensified during China’s Cultural Revolution under Communist Party Mao Zedong; the Uyghurs were treated as second-class citizens. The Uyghurs are an ethnic Turkic Muslim minority living in China’s Xinjiang Province dating back centuries. Although considered an ethnic minority, the Uyghurs, until recently, made up the majority of the population in the Xinjiang Province, which they refer to as “Turkistan.”
In the 1990s, following the growth of the Uyghur separatist movement, the Chinese Government began to extensively crackdown on the Uyghurs. The Government declared the conflict in Xinjiang to be a severe threat to China, implementing the first “Strike Hard” campaign in 1996, which authorized the arrest and detention of persons suspected of separatism. The following year, while peacefully protesting for greater rights, the Uyghurs were targeted by armed Chinese paramilitary. As a result, thousands of Uyghurs were detained, and hundreds were deemed “separatists” and subsequently executed.
In recent years, the oppression of the Uyghurs has incrementally increased. The start of Ji Jinping’s presidency brought a new wave of crackdowns under his 2014 “Strike Hard Campaign against Violent Terrorism”: new restrictions were placed on religious expression, arbitrary arrests became commonplace, Mosque and cultural centers were destroyed, and local police and military initiated the Government’s mass detention policies, to name a few.
The Uyghur genocide has drawn international attention from governments and NGOs calling for an end to the regime’s harsh treatment of Uyghurs. In response, the Chinese Government has dismissed any claims against the Government as anti-Chinese propaganda. Regarding its restrictive policies, the Government has claimed that these are protective policies as part of a wider counter-terrorism initiative and that the so-called detention camps are actually “vocational training centers” to integrate Uyghurs into Han society.
Mass Detention & Forced Labor Camps in Xinjiang
In the last five years, around 1.5 million previously detained Uyghurs have been forced to work at labor factories under unfathomable conditions, which many international companies have profited from. The mass detention of Uyghurs has provided a surplus of free labor, kicking off a systematic program of forced transfer and forced labor, providing a cheap labor source for rich international companies.
Previous reports had linked Xinjiang’s detention facilities to the state-sponsored forced labor program. Data shows factories were being built near existing camps, which allowed the smooth and quick transfer of Uyghurs to labor camps. According to survivor testimony, Uyghurs were subject to torture, psychological indoctrination programs, sexual violence, and forced disappearance/murder inside detention camps.
Since 2017, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has identified 27 factories that are part of the supply chain of 82 major international brands, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Zara, Coca-Cola, and Nike, benefiting from Uyghur forced labor. Some companies, including Nike, Apple, and Coca-Cola, lobbied against the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act that was eventually passed in Congress under the Biden Administration.
Over the last few decades, China has quickly become a dominating global economic power that accounts for 26 percent of global manufacturing output. China accounts for around 22 percent of the world’s total cotton production, with 84 percent coming from the Xinjiang Province. In May 2022, researchers in Germany found traces of Xinjiang cotton in clothing made by Puma, Adidas, and Hugo Boss, despite previous promises to remove Uyghur forced labor from their supply chains.
The UFLPA and Global Supply Chains
An increasingly globalized world has led to complicated, intertwined supply chains that span countries, complicating the tracking of where exactly goods come from. While the law may cause more supply shortages and delays as companies scramble to demonstrate their compliance with U.S. policy, preventing the use of forced labor is necessary to ensure that every individual’s human rights are upheld.
Dogmatic policing supply chains for human rights abuses require the international community’s cooperation. Although the European Union recently recognized the crimes against the Uyghurs as “genocide,” it has yet to introduce legislation that would ban the use of Uyghur forced labor.
Alas, given how interconnected the current world is, the new law would not be very impactful without participation from the likes of the EU, Canada, and other democratic allies.