Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

An Australian think tank has traced the supply chains of major U.S. companies back to Chinese companies that use Uighur forced labor.

Why it matters: It's against U.S. law for companies to import products made through forced labor — but proving those links is often difficult. As more information comes to light, expect more government action to combat tainted imports.

  • "Uyghurs for Sale," a report published on March 1 by the Canberra-based think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), traces the supply chains of more than 80 international companies back to Chinese companies that use Uighur workers who have been compelled to work there.
  • The companies mentioned in the ASPI report include Nike, Apple, Gap, Huawei, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen.

Context: The Chinese government has waged a years-long campaign to eradicate the culture and religion of its predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities, particularly the Uighurs, who number around 11 million.

  • More than one million Uighurs have been detained in internment camps. Many are now being transferred to forced labor facilities.

Previous reports have indicated Uighur forced labor is concentrated in the textile industry, and brands like H&M, Adidas, and Uniqlo have sourced their cotton from Xinjiang.

  • The new report goes further, identifying specific Chinese companies from which many international brands source their products, and showing that those companies employ Uighur forced labor.
  • That evidence may help U.S. officials enforce a prohibition against importing products made through forced labor.
  • The Forced Labor Division, housed in Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security, is tasked with enforcing the ban.

How it works:

  • With sufficient evidence, the Forced Labor Division can issue a withhold release order (WRO) to keep imports suspected of ties to forced labor from entering U.S. ports.
  • Companies then have 90 days to demonstrate that their imported goods aren't tainted. Even if they manage to do that, it's a lengthy process that delays product delivery and can cut into profits.
  • That serves as a powerful deterrent from any supply chains even suspected of links to forced labor.

Yes, but: In a tightly restricted region like Xinjiang, it's very difficult to compile sufficient legal evidence to issue a WRO.

  • In 2019, the Forced Labor Division issued a WRO related to China’s Hetian Taida Apparel, which supplied college sportswear to U.S. retailers.
  • But few others have been issued so far.

Axios reached out to companies listed in the report for comment. Their responses:

  • "Apple is dedicated to ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is treated with the dignity and respect they deserve," spokesperson Josh Rosenstock told Axios in a statement. "We work closely with all our suppliers to ensure our high standards are upheld."
  • "Huawei requires all our suppliers to comply with international standards and applicable laws as a condition of doing business with us. We have read the ASPI report and are looking into the matter," spokesperson Glenn Schloss told Axios.
  • Nike and Volkswagen told the Washington Post they are committed to adhering to international labor laws.

The bottom line: Outside reports aren't themselves sufficient; the division must legally verify such findings. But the new report will make that less difficult.

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