Speaking up about forced labour

Speaking up about forced labour

In a move that could further sour relations between the world's two largest economies, the US Congress last week agreed on legislation aimed at punishing China for the alleged oppression of Uighur Muslims.

The Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, passed by a unanimous voice vote on Dec 14, will make the US the first country to ban the import of goods produced by Uighur forced labour, once it is signed by President Joe Biden.

The bill will ban all imports to the US from China's Xinjiang region unless companies can show "clear and convincing evidence" their supply chains have not used the labour of ethnic Muslims enslaved in Chinese camps.

The US accuses the Chinese government of running detention camps for Uighurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang, where forced labour is used to produce everything from textiles to solar panels. The claim, joined by other Western countries and human rights groups, accuses Beijing of committing genocide against Uighurs and other Muslim groups through mass internment, population control and the elimination of the minorities' religious beliefs.

China of course denies the allegations, saying it runs "reeducation camps" to fight Islamist extremism.

The White House welcomed lawmakers' endorsement of the bill. "We agree with Congress that action can and must be taken to hold the People's Republic of China accountable for genocide and human rights abuses and to address forced labour in Xinjiang," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

The Biden administration also plans to ban American investments in DJI, the world's largest commercial drone manufacturer, and seven other Chinese companies for what Washington says is their role in China's mass surveillance of Muslim ethnic groups.

The US Treasury Department will put DJI and the other companies on its "Chinese military-industrial complex companies" blacklist. US investors are barred from taking financial stakes in the 60 Chinese groups already on the blacklist.

The move follows Washington's sanctions of SenseTime Group Inc over the alleged oppression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, forcing the AI leader to postpone its initial public offering (IPO) in Hong Kong.

The fight against forced labour or modern slavery is taking place on many fronts. In Malaysia, the Labour Department has charged the Dyson supplier ATA IMS with four violations of labour law on accommodation for workers as it investigates complaints of forced labour.

The step comes after the British home appliance maker said last month it was severing relations with ATA, and would end its contract within six months, after an independent audit of the Malaysian company's labour practices and accusations by a whistleblower.

Earlier, Canada and the US suspended imports from the Malaysian glove maker Supermax Corp, awaiting the results of an audit over allegations that it uses forced labour.

Malaysia, in late November, launched the National Action Plan on Forced Labour (NAPFL) 2021-25 with a focus on awareness, enforcement, labour migration and access to remedy and support services. Praised by the International Labour Organization as a major step in tackling the issue, the NAPFL serves Malaysia's goal to eliminate forced labour by 2030.

Australia, meanwhile, has stepped up its efforts to eradicate modern slavery with the introduction of a new sanctions regime that allows authorities to punish perpetrators of serious human rights violations, such as modern slavery, without the need for a geographic connection. In the UK, a private member's bill seeking to address modern slavery was introduced to the parliament in June and is currently in its second reading before the House of Lords.

The new US law threatens to escalate tensions between Washington and Beijing, who are tussling over everything from technology supremacy to human rights. The White House recently announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing to protest against China's policies in Xinjiang.

China was quick to brand the US as hypocritical for not addressing forced labour within its own borders. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian decried "interference in China's internal affairs" and "political manipulation and economic bullying in the name of human rights".

For years, the world has turned a blind eye to forced labour that makes many essential goods for our daily life like clothes and shoes. The US legislation signals additional steps might follow to hold China accountable for the world's worst forced labour regime. It could provide a template for other governments to follow and introduce their own forced labour bills.

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