New Laws and Guidelines From E.U. and ILO Target Forced Labor With Eye on Xinjiang

The European Parliament voted this week in favor of regulations to ban the sale, import, and export of goods made using forced labor. While the ban does not explicitly target any single country, it is widely seen as responding to numerous reports of forced labor in China, particularly in Xinjiang, where the U.N. has concluded that the Uyghur population may be subject to crimes against humanity and enslavement. The E.U.’s ban follows related measures by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to strengthen its protections against forced labor as a result of similar concerns about supply chains and labor conditions in China. Reuters summarized the European Parliament’s new regulations:

National authorities in the 27-country bloc or the executive Commission will be able to investigate suspicious goods, supply chains, and manufacturers. Preliminary investigations should be wrapped up within 30 working days.

If a product is deemed to have been made using forced labour, it will no longer be possible to sell it in the EU market and shipments will be intercepted at the EU’s borders.

[…] The EU Parliament approved the law with a large majority of 555 votes in favour, six against, and 45 abstentions.

It still needs approval from EU countries to enter into force – a final step that is usually a formality which approves laws with no changes.

EU countries will have to start applying the law within three years. [Source]

The regulations were a long time in the making. The European Commission released its official proposal back in September 2022. Since then, various reports have demonstrated that coercive labor transfers in Xinjiang have continued, and dozens of companies in the automobile and apparel industries have allowed goods made with forced labor to enter the EU market. AFP described how the legislation that was just passed would work to address some of these issues:

The new rules give the European Commission the power to launch investigations when there are suspicions about the supply chains in countries outside the EU.

If the use of forced labour is proven, officials will seize the products at the borders and order their withdrawal from the European market and online retailers.

If the risk is in one member state, the local authority in that country will investigate the products allegedly made using forced labour.

For some goods deemed to be at risk, importers will be forced to provide detailed information on the manufacturers.

The EU will also create a regularly updated database about forced labour risks that will include international reports to aid the commission and national bodies in assessing possible violations of the law. [Source]

Critics pointed out that the E.U.’s regulations are not as strict as those passed in the U.S. by the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, which went into effect in June 2022 and placed the burden of proof on companies to establish the absence of forced labor, not on regulators to show its absence. “We welcome this milestone but stress that all related guidance, guidelines and considerations of when to investigate cases be created in a way that ensures the regulation can effectively ban products made with state-imposed forced labor,” said Zumretay Arkin, director of global advocacy at World Uyghur Congress. She added that the E.U. “missed a crucial opportunity to agree on an instrument that could meaningfully address forced labor when the government is the perpetrator, like in the Uyghur region in China.” Mared Gwyn Jones & Paula Soler from Euronews highlighted other critiques about insufficient redress for victims of forced labor

On the other hand, civil society organisations have also flagged some limitations of the new regulation, as it does not include an obligation to provide remediation for victims as a condition to lift a ban on a product.

“Workers affected by forced labour will remain vulnerable without an explicit obligation to remedy harm,” Sian Lea, Business and Human Rights manager at Anti-Slavery International, told Euronews, arguing that without low evidentiary thresholds, it will be difficult for workers to bring up complaints against abusing companies.

NGOs also regret that there is no presumption of state-imposed forced labour in high-risk areas and sectors where there is evidence of slave labour.

The regulation is “weak” in those cases, says advocacy group Clean Clothes Campaign: “Our mind goes to the Uyghurs population: one could doubt whether this regulation will actually have an impact on their lives”. [Source]

Reactions in China were predictably negative. Global Times stated that the forced-labor ban “overshadows China[-E.U.] ties” and urged the E.U. to have the “strategic wisdom not to mix political and economic issues.” In addition to this ban, E.U.-China relations have been deteriorating recently due to rising pressure within Europe to push back against Chinese exports of overcapacity and to impose tariffs on Chinese electric vehicle imports. Other contributing factors include growing dissatisfaction about Chinese support for Russia’s war against Ukraine, European raids on Chinese company Nuctech, and German arrests of suspected Chinese spies.

Meanwhile, the ILO also recently updated its guidelines on forced labor prevalence surveys. Adrian Zenz wrote for the Jamestown China Brief this month about how the ILO’s new guidelines directly target Uyghur forced labor:

For first time since establishing its forced labor taskforce in 2001, the International Labour Organization (ILO) has issued authoritative and comprehensive guidance on operationalizing the research and measurement of forced labor, updating its more provisional guidelines from 2012.

The new ILO Handbook adds a substantial new section on state-imposed forced labor, squarely targeting Beijing’s forced labor in Xinjiang and Tibet and specifically referring to “labor transfers” of ethnic minorities.

The Handbook adopts the author’s category of “non-internment state-imposed forms of forced labor” in its research guidelines, significantly enhancing the ability to detect [Uyghur forced labor].

[…] The Handbook’s statement that non-internment forced labor mobilization is best assessed as a risk rather than a specific instance […] provides strong support for arguments that related legislation should reverse the burden of proof, shifting it from enforcement authorities to companies. This could have implications for the European Union’s upcoming forced labor legislation. [Source]

In a testament to the challenges of finding efficient ways to determine the prevalence of forced labor in supply chains, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China is hosting a panel next week titled, “Factories And Fraud In The PRC: How Human Rights Violations Make Reliable Audits Impossible.”

Beyond forced labor, hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and others in Xinjiang targeted by state repression have received lengthy prison sentences. The Uyghur Human Rights Project released a new analysis to quantify this phenomenon and found that one in 26 Uyghurs and other non-Han citizens are imprisoned in Xinjiang, a rate of 3,814 people per 100,000 and “just over 47 times the rate of Han people. This figure excludes “re-education” camps and pre-trial detention.

Among those who have been imprisoned and potentially subject to forced labor is Uyghur academic Rahile Dawut. Edward White profiled Rahile this week in The Financial Times, charting her trajectory from thriving custodian of Uyghur culture to target of the state who was forcibly disappeared:

Rahile was tried in secret in December 2018 at an intermediate people’s court in Xinjiang. A subsequent appeal was rejected. For much of the next five years, her immediate family and closest supporters were in the dark.

[…Rahile’s sentence for the crime of “splittism,” endangering state security,] was confirmed last September by Kamm, who was shown an official document. On Chinese government stationery, signed by a senior Chinese official, was a statement: Rahile Dawut was sentenced to life in prison.

With her network of international connections, Rahile’s name was one among about 450 other academics, intellectuals, writers and musicians who campaign groups believe went missing around the same time. Most remain behind bars.

Rahile’s case, experts say, is now emblematic of the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uyghur people moving from the re-education phase to long-term imprisonment. [Source]


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