Forced labor has been a central part of China’s campaign against the Uighurs for as long as I can remember. I was born in a re-education camp at the height of China’s infamous Cultural Revolution. My father was sent to a separate forced labor camp. I grew up witnessing Uighur villagers forced by Chinese authorities to build irrigation systems and pick cotton.
Tragically, decades later, re-education camps and forced labor remain a gruesome reality affecting millions of Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in East Turkistan, which China calls the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. These camps, despite the euphemism of “vocational training centers,” are far from vocational and never voluntary. Detainees suffer torture, rape, forced sterilization and abortion, constant political indoctrination and even death. Authorities have also forced tens of thousands of detainees to work in the Uighur region and elsewhere in China.
As a result, products made using Uighur forced labor — including wigs, face masks, apparel and electronics — have made their way to the United States, violating U.S. laws and regulations. In response, the House passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act with bipartisan support in September 2020, which bans goods made in Xinjiang using forced labor, imposes sanctions on foreign individuals and entities who engage in forced labor and requires companies to disclose information related to Xinjiang.
But without meaningful and extraordinary action from U.S. companies, products made with Uighur forced labor will continue to reach American households. To eliminate the use of Uighur forced labor in their products, companies must respond creatively and proactively to address longstanding challenges they face with supply chain transparency.
Last year, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) independently found that dozens of Chinese and international companies — including iconic American brands like Dell, Nike and Heinz — either directly employ or source from businesses that use Uighur forced labor. Because of the pervasive nature of the use of forced labor in and from the Uighur region, U.S. companies’ exposure to such atrocities in their supply chains is most likely extensive.
Meanwhile, exports from the Uighur region to the United States continued to rise, causing alarming concerns about the increasing magnitude of the problem. From April 2019 to April 2020, the United States was the fastest-growing export market for the Uighur region, rising by more than 250 percent and including many industries, such as apparel, hair, metals and plastic.
Several major U.S. companies, including Nike and Coca-Cola, have already started to take notice, promising to root out forced labor in their supply chains by conducting third-party audits. These are encouraging efforts. But audits alone do not provide reliable and sufficient information to detect labor abuses in the supply chains. Because of the extremely repressive environment in the Uighur region, authorities have prevented auditors from carrying out their work with undue interference. In addition, interviewed detainees, fearing retaliation, are not able to provide a truthful account of their working conditions.
As a case in point, Nike claimed that an audit confirmed that its Qingdao factory had no Uighur workers in 2019. However, citing Chinese state media, ASPI reported that the factory still employed about 800 Uighurs at the end of 2019 and produced more than seven million pairs of shoes for Nike each year.
Existing measures may be insufficient to combat the problem of Uighur forced labor in and from the Uighur region, but U.S. companies must not be complacent. Enslavement, including forced labor, is a potential crime against humanity when carried out as part of a widespread or systematic attack purposefully targeting individuals based on ethnicity and religion. China’s forced labor practices fit this pattern, and businesses that have wittingly or unwittingly aided and abetted these potentially criminal activities could be held accountable, as were certain German industrialists prosecuted in the Nuremberg trials after World War II.
Instead of relying on traditional third-party audits, U.S. companies must actively and independently look for potential indicators of forced labor in the supply chains, including: a lack of transparency on the origin of goods; Xinjiang-based suppliers with high revenue but few employees paying into social insurance programs; use of internment terminologies such as “Education Training Centers” or “Legal Education Centers”; government incentives for “poverty alleviation” and “mutual pairing programs”; workers hired through government recruiters; and factory locations that may be indicative of forced labor.
If suppliers are found to be using forced labor to produce their goods, companies must cut ties and shift their supply chains. There are already encouraging examples of this: In 2019, Badger Sportswear, based in North Carolina, announced that it would no longer source products from Hetian Taida Apparel in Xinjiang. Last year, some U.S. hair product companies canceled orders from Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories — whose imports were blocked by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in May — and severed their relationship with the agency that managed their supply chains.
Working together across sectors to increase their leverage and impact, U.S. companies can send a collective and strong message to the Chinese government that they take their corporate responsibilities and human rights due diligence seriously, that they do not wish to be complicit in these atrocious crimes in the Uighur region and are ready to cut ties with Chinese supply chains if necessary.
Additionally, in light of the recent countermeasures adopted by the Chinese government that force many U.S. companies to choose between complying with American and Chinese regulations, companies should make the morally right choice by seriously considering to diversify and relocate their supply chains. In the long run, companies should also invest in and employ new and innovative technologies to trace the products’ origin more effectively in their supply chains.
The U.S. government has taken extraordinary steps to counter forced labor in the Uighur region, and the Biden administration has indicated interest in addressing China’s economic practices, including forced labor. At this critical juncture, facing one of the largest, most systematic persecutions of an ethno-religious group since World War II, U.S. companies must step up. Moving beyond due diligence is the only right thing to do.
Nury Turkel is a commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. As a longtime human rights advocate and lawyer, Mr. Turkel has devoted his time and energy to promoting Uighur human rights, including representing a substantial number of Uighur political refugees with their asylum applications in the United States. In September 2020, he was named one of the Time 100 most influential people in the world.