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Was Your Face Mask Made Using Forced Labor in China?

This op-ed originally appeared in The Diplomat, on August 26, 2020.

By USCIRF Commissioners Nury Turkel and James W. Carr

Face masks have become ubiquitous as the world continues to reel from the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, as the demand for face masks skyrocketed, so too have concerns about the labor conditions of the workers making them. According to a new report, some personal protective equipment imported from China was made in factories that use forced labor. This is part of a Chinese government program that forcibly sends ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs from their home in Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China that Uyghurs call East Turkistan, to work in factories across the country. The news that the equipment saving our lives was made at the expense of someone else’s freedom strikes us as a deeply troubling tradeoff. Unfortunately, it is just one example of many Chinese products in American markets made with forced labor. 

The Chinese Communist Party has a long history of repressing Uyghur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz ethnic groups in this region. Since 2017, the government has detained an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in concentration camps. They were not detained because of any crime they committed, but rather because of their ethnicity and religion. Leaked Chinese government documents show that individuals were targeted because they grew a beard, wore a veil, or had relatives outside of China.

The Chinese government claims that these camps are vocational training schools to alleviate poverty in the Uyghur region. This claim is contradicted by the detention of hundreds of Uyghur intellectuals and professionals, including doctors, lawyers, and professors—people who do not need job training. Instead, Chinese authorities have used the camps as a source of forced labor.

According to the U.S. government’s Congressional-Executive Commission on China, thousands of Uyghur detainees have been forced to work in textile, electronics, and other factories. Another report documents how Uyghur prisoners are routinely forced to pick cotton and work in garment factories. More than 80 percent of Chinese cotton products originate in the Uyghur region—which means that any cotton clothes “made in China” being sold at your local retailer might be the result of egregious human rights violations. In fact, an Australian think tank warns that at least 83 international companies—including major American retailers and brands like Walmart, Apple, Nike, and Polo Ralph Lauren—source from businesses in China that use forced labor of Uyghur and other Muslims.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum stated that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that China’s forced labor practices and mass detention of Uyghurs might constitute crimes against humanity, notably imprisonment and persecution. Indeed, the parallels between Auschwitz in 1944 and Xinjiang in 2020 are apparent and unnerving. After World War II, German industrialists were found guilty at the Nuremberg trials for the use of forced labor in concentration camps. German companies like Volkswagen faced a stigma for years because of their actions during the war. Today, a Volkswagen factory in the regional capital of Urumqi might have benefitted from forced labor and other rights violations against Uyghurs.

As Commissioners with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), we advise global retailers, including Walmart and Costco, to avoid sourcing cotton apparel items and other goods from supply chains that run through the Uyghur region. Conducting due diligence is both impossible and impractical because many Uyghur workers fear to discuss their working conditions openly. It is the responsibility of businesses to ensure that they are not violating the U.S. and international laws by bolstering or benefiting from forced labor.  

The U.S. government has begun to take action to combat forced labor in China. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been aggressive in seizing hair and textile products originating from certain Chinese companies believed to employ forced labor. On July 1, the U.S. Departments of StateTreasuryCommerce, and Homeland Security issued a business advisory on the risks of supply chains with links to Xinjiang. On July 20, the Department of Commerce restricted the access of several Chinese companies to U.S. goods and technology. These are important first steps, but there is much more our government can do to ensure that American markets are not tainted by forced labor.

First, Congress should pass, and the President sign, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. This bill would bar imports of all goods mined, produced, or manufactured in the Uyghur region unless proven by clear and convincing evidence that they were not produced using forced labor. Such a law would allow CBP to be much more aggressive in combatting these practices rather than having to make determinations about individual imports or companies.

In addition, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should require companies traded on U.S. stock exchanges that do business in Xinjiang to disclose information about the possible use of forced labor in their supply chains. Providing this information would allow American consumers and investors to make more informed and ethical purchasing decisions. Congress has already mandated disclosures for other types of rights violations, which could serve as a model for a new rule for supply chains in the Uyghur region.

The United States cannot tackle these problems alone. We urge U.S. diplomats to work with allies to remove this modern-day slavery from global supply chains. The newly formed International Religious Freedom Alliance should commit to working together to cut off export markets for tainted goods from the Uyghur region.

To be clear, USCIRF does not oppose all trade with China; we understand the benefits of trade to both American consumers and business. However, the American people have a right to rest assured that they are not unknowingly buying products that fund forced labor.

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