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Businesses must be ‘concerned about issues related to forced labor’: CBP official on Xinjiang goods

Officers of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Office of Field Operations (OFO) at the Port of New York/Newark inspect a shipment of hair pieces and accessories from China. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Released)
December 14, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced last week that it will detain all shipments containing cotton and cotton products originating from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC)—a key paramilitary group in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)—citing forced labor abuses. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Trade issued a Withhold Release Order (WRO) directing personnel at all U.S. ports of entry to block the products “based on information that reasonably indicates the use of forced labor, including convict labor.”

The order applies to all cotton goods produced by the XPCC, also known as the “Bingtuan,” and its subordinate and affiliated entities, as well as any products that are made in whole or in part with or derived from that cotton, such as apparel, garments, and textiles. Rights groups estimate that one in five cotton garments sold globally contains cotton or yarn from the XUAR and a July report by the End Uyghur Forced Labor campaign found that “it is virtually certain that many of these goods are tainted with forced labor.”

The WRO marks the sixth action the CBP has announced in the past three months against goods it says are made by forced labor in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since early 2017. Amid increasing international scrutiny, authorities in the XUAR have begun to send detainees to work at nearby factories as part of an effort to label the camps “vocational centers,” although those held in the facilities regularly toil under forced or coerced labor conditions.

RFA recently spoke with Ana Hinojosa, executive director of the CBP, about the WRO and how the agency has been focusing on the XUAR as a key region for forced labor goods being exported from China.

RFA: This is obviously not the first time the CBP issued this kind of WRO. I understand there have been at least a dozen WROs issued in the past year, and most of them are related to products made in the XUAR. Why is that?

Hinojosa: Last fiscal year, we issued 13 WROs, many of them, as you stated, for China—for products coming out of China—and most of them for the XUAR. Our work is driven by petitions or allegations that are submitted by entities, whether it be NGOs, think tanks, in some cases other government agencies, and as you are aware, I think there’s a lot of interest in in the situation in the XUAR and the human rights violations that are happening there. We have benefited from a lot of allegations that have been submitted from a number of different sources related to products that are being produced there with the use of forced labor. And so, we have been prioritizing the review of those allegations.

RFA: On Dec. 2, when the DHS made this announcement, deputy acting cecretary Ken Cuccinelli stated that “Made in China” is not just about the country of origin anymore. It’s a warning label.

Hinojosa: Well, I can’t speak for the deputy secretary, but based on my understanding of listening to his speech, he wants consumers and businesses to know that when they are doing business with China, they really need to be concerned about the issues related to forced labor. And in particular, as we know so much about, for example, the cotton industry and how the cotton industry works, and how most of the cotton that is produced in China actually comes from the XUAR, we know that much of the products coming out of China that contain cotton will have some of this cotton in it and therefore would be considered prohibited coming into the United States. And so, I think he wants to make sure that the private sector, industry, and even individual consumers are forewarned that they should be concerned that buying products that are sold for below cost or below reasonable cost are being produced with forced labor, and that businesses and consumers should take extra care in doing business with China to ensure that they’re not supporting more human rights violations in the Xinjiang region.

More than just cotton

RFA: The XPCC produces more than just cotton. So, why haven’t other products been put on the XPCC WRO as well, in addition to cotton products?

Hinojosa: The CBP statute has two criteria. One is that a product coming to the United States must be made with forced labor … and it doesn’t have to be wholly made with forced labor, even if only parts of that product are made with forced labor, that would still give us authority to take enforcement action. But … it’s not enough to know that the products are made with forced labor, we have to be able to connect those products to importations that are happening into the United States … A lot of times, as you probably well know, products are manufactured in Xinjiang and then they move into Mainland China. And then there, or in other surrounding countries, they’re incorporated into other products. And then they come to the United States. If we had more information as to some of that supply chain, that would give us a lot more ability to take more enforcement.

RFA: As you say, the Chinese government, especially the XPCC, produces a lot of cotton and cotton products. But now the concern is, after the U.S. ban on cotton products, they can simply ship all the cotton to other areas in China and, under the cover of different company names, produce products and apparel and continue to export to the U.S. How do you prevent importation of such goods?

Hinojosa: We realize that—as it relates to products that are made with cotton, cotton fiber, cotton yarn—the forced labor is really tied to that raw material. So basically, that raw material is, in our opinion, made with forced labor. And so, any product that it is further incorporated into would then still carry that prohibited status. The issue is finding it, right? And so, what we are doing is we’re focusing our efforts on identifying the products of highest risk, and addressing them in that regard, and then continuing to work through other products. The fact that it goes into a product in mainland China is not going to eliminate the fact that the cotton would have originated in Xinjiang. And so, companies will have to provide evidence that the cotton that is incorporated into their product is not cotton that came out of Xinjiang.