Court of Appeal win shows that companies risk prosecution if they continue to profit from forced labour goods

Today, victory in the Court of Appeal as the failure of the National Crime Agency to investigate Uyghur forced labour in cotton imports was ruled unlawful.  Anti-Slavery International and allies celebrate this victory and urge that there should never be a “fair price” for goods made with forced labour. 

London, 27th June: The Court of Appeal handed down a judgment overturning the previous decision on the World Uyghur Congress’s legal challenge against the UK government on its failure to investigate cotton imports from the Uyghur Region (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). The case was heard on 15-16 May, 2024.

Anti-Slavery International and allies celebrate this victory and pay tribute to the bravery and tenacity of Uyghur activists for pursuing this important legal challenge. Today, the Court of Appeal ruled that the National Crime Agency’s failure to investigate the importation of cotton produced in the Uyghur Region was unlawful. This judgment will have a broad impact and sends a strong signal that the UK should not allow itself to become a dumping ground for goods made with forced labour. This case is not only important for all workers at risk of modern slavery, but is particularly salient as it centers on Uyghur forced labour, which is a key part of the widescale system of control and persecution by the Chinese government on Uyghurs, Turkic and other Muslim-majority peoples.

Anti-Slavery Interntional colleagues join lawyers from GLAN outside the Royal Courts of Justice

Anti-Slavery International colleagues stand with lawyers from the Global Legal Action
Network
outside the Royal Courts of Justice to mark the commencement of the appeal.

While a great success and an important step, this judgment is not sufficient to stop goods made with forced labour from entering the UK market. We urge UK authorities to honour this judgment and not seek to appeal the case. The UK Government must join the US and the EU in approving far-reaching bans on products made with forced labour. We need these laws to ensure that companies cannot profit from forced labour goods and that they provide remedy to victims of forced labour. It should not fall on civil society and communities impacted by forced labour to have to pursue long and expensive court cases to make sure that companies are held to account for abuses in their supply chains.

Anti-Slavery International and allies were concerned that, if the previous judgment was upheld, there could be allowance for a “fair price” for forced labour goods. Crucially, part of the victory in this appeal case, is that the Court has determined that paying “adequate consideration” (a fair price) anywhere in the supply chain does not prevent forced labour goods imported into the UK from being identified as criminal property. Therefore, companies using and profiting from forced labour in their supply chains could be at risk of prosecution under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, regardless of the price they paid for the product.

Dr Verity McCullagh, Business and Human Rights Legal Adviser, Anti-Slavery International, said, “Everyone must be able to live in freedom, but millions of people around the world are exploited in forced labour in business supply chains.  This case was of utmost importance as it raised concerns about whether a “fair price” for forced labour goods would be considered.

Today’s judgment is a great success and sends an important message that the UK is not prepared to be a dumping ground for goods made with forced labour. We know there cannot be a “fair price” for goods made with forced labour, and we are relieved to see that the appeal has been upheld. While a hugely positive step, the UK Government has not kept pace with important allies such as the US and EU in tackling forced labour in supply chains. The UK must now introduce new legislation to stop companies profiting from forced labour and ensure workers are remediated.”

Background on the case 

Uyghur activists challenged the UK Government and its agencies for failure to investigate the importation of cotton produced in the Uyghur Region (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region) through judicial review in 2022. But, despite all parties agreeing that the Uyghur people are being subjected to human rights violations and exploited through forced labour, the judge ruled in favour of the Government.

The High Court judgment followed the authorities’ approach and determined that a specific shipment would need to be identified, and evidence of criminal conduct (forced labour) linked to that shipment was needed for there to be the proper basis to start an investigation.

Additionally, the Court agreed with the argument that even if specific shipments of goods were identified and considered criminal property, there is a defence if “adequate consideration” (market value) was paid for those goods.

On 15th May, as the appeal began, representatives from Anti-Slavery International joined colleagues from the Global Legal Action Network to demonstrate solidarity in this important case and voice extreme concern that it would set a precedent of a “fair price” for forced labour.

The Court of Appeal judgment

The judgment today is a landmark decision that overturns the previous decision and determines that the failure of the National Crime Agency to investigate the importation of cotton produced in the Uyghur Region was unlawful.

The Court of Appeal reiterated the clear and widespread exploitation and abuses (including forced labour) in the Uyghur Region cotton industry.

The appeal judges ruled on both the evidentiary threshold and the adequate consideration exemption. The judgment outlined two propositions of the National Crime Agency:

  • that it was necessary to be able to identify specific criminal property and criminal conduct (a specific shipment linked to forced labour) to start an investigation under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002;
  • and that the payment of “adequate consideration” anywhere in the supply chain would prevent any goods imported into the UK from being identified as criminal property or recoverable property.

The Court strongly stated that “both those propositions are, and are now accepted to be, wrong as a matter of law” [58]. This means the Court of Appeal has overturned the high evidentiary threshold to start an investigation and rejected the broad interpretation of the adequate consideration exemption.

The significance of this judgment cannot be overstated. It sends a clear message to companies that they may risk prosecution if they continue to profit from forced labour in their supply chains.

Notes for editors:

  • The full Court of Appeal judgment can be accessed here.
  • Photos from the Royal Courts of Justice on 15th May are available here and can be credited to Anti-Slavery International. Anti-Slavery International also produced this explainer video on the case.
  • Cotton (and other goods) are well-documented to be produced using state-imposed forced labour. These systems are central to the Chinese Government’s control over the Uyghur Region and persecution of its people. The forced labour system has been perpetrated through a number of schemes, all of which have been linked to the production of cotton and textiles. These include forced labour of internment camp detainees, forced prison labour of people arbitrarily detained in the formal prison system, and state-sponsored labour transfers. The UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery has concluded that some instances of forced labour may constitute a crime against humanity.

Anti-Slavery International is the world’s oldest human rights organisation. It has existed since 1839 to ensure that all people everywhere are free from slavery, challenging slavery in all its forms. 

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