The Debate | Opinion

It’s Time for US Companies to Investigate Forced Labor in China

The U.S. government should shift the burden of due diligence to companies, which are best positioned to uncover their business partners’ labor practices.

By Richard Altieri and Benjamin Della Rocca for
It’s Time for US Companies to Investigate Forced Labor in China
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

In late 2019, leaked Chinese Communist Party (CCP) documents laid bare the scope and scale of Chinese detention centers in Xinjiang province. China describes the centers — where it has interned over 1 million people, primarily Uyghur Muslims — as a program for fighting political “extremism.” Yet the leaks showed that China detains citizens for practicing their faith, downloading unauthorized messaging apps, or even growing long beards. The documents portray the camps as part of a systematic effort to erase Uyghur culture.

However, detention turned out to be just one part of the Party’s plan. A recent report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) estimates that, between 2017 and 2019, the CCP transported at least 80,000 Uyghurs to forced labor facilities throughout eastern China. According to the report, over 80 multinationals buy components from these facilities, including giants like Amazon, Apple, and Volkswagen.

The U.S. government has ethical and legal obligations to act. The Tariff Act of 1930 prohibits importing into the United States any goods produced with forced labor. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which has the power to block imports under this law, should investigate the products and Chinese facilities that ASPI identified.

But when it comes to collecting evidence, CBP faces significant challenges. Rooting out forced labor takes time, expertise, and tedious work. Global supply chains obscure goods’ origins by routing them through multiple countries and creating complex corporate-ownership structures. Making sense of supply chains is more difficult without importers’ internal documents, contacts, and communications — which CBP often lacks. And China, which keeps a tight lid on its detainment policies and threatens whistleblowers, makes forced Uyghur labor especially hard to trace. This is why CBP has blocked imports from just one company, Hetian Taida Apparel, for its connections to forced Uyghur labor — despite extensive reporting on the practice.

To overcome these information problems, CBP should task companies with investigating their own supply chains. CBP should issue a Withhold Release Order (WRO) against components from facilities the ASPI report identifies, creating a regulatory presumption that these components involve forced labor. CBP would lift the WRO, and permit the goods’ entry, only when importers provide evidence to the contrary.

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This maneuver would shift the burden of due diligence to companies themselves, which are best positioned to uncover their business partners’ labor practices. At the same time, it is a measured response. It would burden only companies buying from facilities credibly accused of forced labor, not all companies importing from China.

Congress is now weighing similar action. It is debating a bill to create a presumption that all goods made in Xinjiang province involve forced labor, much like a 2017 law does for North Korean goods. A WRO would complement this move by targeting specific facilities in nine Chinese provinces where the CCP has relocated detainees for work.

CBP’s burden-shifting policy could have significant effects on corporate behavior. When companies uncover forced labor among their Chinese providers, they will turn to alternative suppliers to avoid losing access to U.S. markets. Companies looking to expand their product lines will avoid Chinese contractors in CBP’s crosshairs. All this will create strong incentives for Chinese officials and private employers to improve worker conditions.

Some may protest that giving companies the burden of proof on forced labor questions would increase their costs and, ultimately, consumer prices. The 2017 law against North Korean forced labor drew these same criticisms. But if the United States is serious about ending direct subsidies to forced labor, of course it will come at a price. Purging forced labor from supply chains requires vendor research, monitoring, and — at times — paying higher prices for ethically sourced goods. Companies who sell in U.S. markets ought to ensure their products respect U.S. laws, consumer trust, and basic ethical principles.

The lackluster international response to Chinese detention camps makes it all the more urgent that the United States stand up for its values. China’s extensive lobbying efforts and economic diplomacy have convinced many nations to turn a blind eye to Xinjiang. Last year, when a U.K. letter condemning the Xinjiang camps attracted 23 signatories, 54 nations rebuked it. Many of those 54 had received significant funds through China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In this context, a U.S. crackdown against Chinese forced labor would place much-needed pressure on global companies to change.

Asking companies to take responsibility for their supply chains will not end forced Uyghur labor overnight. But it is an important start — and it will show the world that more can be done.

Richard Altieri and Benjamin Della Rocca are students at Yale Law School.