Blumenauer Opening Statement at Trade Subcommittee Hearing on Enforcing the Ban on Imports Produced by Forced Labor in Xinjiang

Sep 17, 2020
Press Release

(As prepared for delivery)

Today the Trade Subcommittee is holding a hearing on Enforcing the Ban on Imports Produced by Forced Labor in Xinjiang.

Forced labor is the term we use today for what is often described as “modern slavery.” It refers to work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. It refers to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt.

In today’s China, researchers and investigators have documented that the Chinese government is using forced labor in the production of all kinds of goods through a concerted program of oppression and coerced assimilation of China’s Uyghur and other Muslim minority groups population.

Our Committee has a long history of grappling with the depravity of forced labor and ensuring that goods produced under such conditions do not eventually make their way into grocery stores and shopping malls across our country. Congress passed a law prohibiting the importation of such goods nearly 100 years ago. The U.S. import ban is founded on principles of morality, of human and worker rights, as well as principles of fair economic competition.

However, the history of the implementation of the U.S. ban on forced labor imports has been spotty.  The law had serious flaws, including a so-called “consumptive demand” loophole that eroded the principled underpinnings of the prohibition by exempting goods made by forced labor if the United States could not produce those goods in sufficient quantities to meet consumer demand. The demand loophole was also a moral loophole. I was proud to work with my colleagues on this Committee to close this loophole in strong and bipartisan fashion five years ago.

The strong forced labor import ban in the United States has become an important standard for worker protection and fair economic competition.  Prohibiting the importation of goods produced by forced labor is now reflected in the USMCA where, because of House Democrats’ renegotiation of the pact, the obligation for the USMCA countries is now a strong and unqualified prohibition.

The import ban also serves as a clear and powerful economic sanction for countries whose governments tolerate, cultivate, or – in the worst cases – perpetrate the coercion of labor.

As both a sanction and as a tool to counter anticompetitive terms of trade, the U.S. forced labor import ban has an important role to play in addressing the Chinese government’s abuse of its Uyghur population’s human rights and rights as workers.  And that is the focus for our hearing today.

Since we closed that loophole in 2015, our focus in improving the effectiveness of the U.S. forced labor import ban has shifted to ensuring that the provision is meaningfully implemented and enforced. That’s certainly no easy task. The Department of Labor’s annual reports document the presence of forced labor conditions in more than 70 countries and in a wide and diverse set of goods.   The ILO estimates 20 million people around the world are subjected to forced labor in the private economy, which generates $150 billion dollars annually.

Despite the pervasiveness of the problem, the enforcement mechanism had been dormant. When Congress closed the consumptive demand loophole, CBP had not taken an enforcement action in more than fifteen years.

In the nearly five years since closing the loophole, CBP has slowly increased its enforcement. Some positive steps have been taken, such as the ban on cotton from Turkmenistan in response to a state-sponsored program of forced labor.

However, much more needs to be done. Congress established the Forced Labor Enforcement Task Force in the USMCA Implementation Act to provide a central hub for the federal government to undertake this work and improve enforcement – not just for addressing the incidence of forced labor production in Canada and Mexico, but worldwide and for counteracting the coercion of the labor of Uyghurs in China.

A key first step is establishing a clear process and timelines for responding to allegations of forced labor. The law requires that the Forced Labor Task Force produce a report that does just that.  Unfortunately, Congress is still waiting on that report from the Task Force – which should have been submitted in August. Today, I call on the Department of Homeland Security, which serves as interagency lead for the Task Force, to submit this report immediately and without further delay.  I also want to emphasize the importance for this Administration and any administration to comply with statutory mandates and timelines.

The second step is establishing a proactive and comprehensive enforcement strategy for the federal government. This includes coordinating the efforts of the different agencies focused on forced labor. CBP needs to devote more resources to developing such a strategy and having the necessary enforcement personnel to investigate and enforce that strategy.

These efforts will underpin an effective policy response to the subject of our hearing today, the treatment of the Uyghur and other minority Muslim populations in China, specifically the use of forced labor in the Xinjiang province.

It has been clearly documented that the Chinese government is subjecting over one million people to forced labor, trafficking, internment, and enhanced surveillance.  Under the auspices of saying they are combatting religious extremism and poverty alleviation, the Chinese government has implemented a program to convert Muslim minorities, mostly Uyghurs, to Chinese Han-majority.

The program includes the building of internment camps in Xinjiang, where Muslim minorities are sent to be “re-educated.”  The scheme further includes forced labor for rural minority populations, current and former detainees of internment camps, and for prisoners.

Survivors have reported many incidents of intimidation; threats of detention and/or threats to family members; restricted movement; isolation; abusive working conditions; bans on religious practices; and excessive work hours. Today’s witness, Rushan Abbas, will share with us details about the horrific conditions in Xinjiang as she recounts her time interviewing survivors across the globe.

Despite the ongoing atrocities, the Trump Administration has failed to take effective action to address these practices. During negotiation of the Phase One China Trade deal, the Administration failed to even raise a single labor concern or raise concerns regarding the abusive treatment of the Uyghurs in China. That was a big missed opportunity as an economic matter and a profound failure of leadership overall.  It has even been reported by the Trump Administration’s former National Security Advisor that the President expressed approval for Chinese President Xi’s plan to build more detention camps for Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Just this week, CBP issued five Withhold Release Orders or WROs, which are intended to prohibit the importation of certain goods produced by companies or factories that use forced labor in Xinjiang. While issuing WROs are positive steps, they do not come close to adequately addressing the systemic problem in Xinjiang.

Businesses and brands that import products made with forced labor into the U.S. must also play an important role in removing these abusive practices from global supply chains.  Just because supply chains are complex and this issue is difficult, does not mean we can shy away from making necessary changes.

In response to the Administration’s ineffective approach thus far, the purpose of our hearing today is to examine the deeply troubling situation in Xinjiang and how to craft a strong and effective U.S. policy response using the U.S. forced labor import ban. I look forward to hearing from our distinguished witnesses on that front.