What is the impact of the US Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act One Year On?

Last week marked the first anniversary of the enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) in the United States on 21 June. This law takes sweeping measures to address corporate profiteering from Uyghur forced labour, by banning all companies from importing goods tainted with Uyghur forced labour. It has the potential to be incredibly impactful, by reducing the economic benefit the Chinese government and complicit companies gain from Uyghur forced labour, giving Uyghur people assurances that US companies and consumers aren’t profiting and benefiting from the persecution of their people, and letting the Chinese government know that this persecution is not condoned.

Last year, we wrote a blog outlining what we thought was positive about the law, and highlighting the core risks that goods would simply be re-exported to other countries with weaker laws. A year on, we reflect upon the impact of the law so far, and progress made in other countries to target the trade of goods made with forced labour.

The UFLPA establishes a so-called “rebuttable presumption” on products from the Uyghur Region. This means that US Customs Authorities work under the assumption that all products produced in the Uyghur Region, or using content (such as raw materials, like cotton, or polysilicon – the product used in most solar panels) from the Uyghur Region are made with forced labour.

The only way to ensure supply chains are free of Uyghur forced labour is to cut ties with the Uyghur Region entirely. Due diligence in the Region is impossible because of Chinese authorities’ pervasive and strict surveillance and widespread campaign to silence and intimidate the population. Because of this, the UFLPA’s strict prohibition of any goods made with Uyghur forced labour effectively disallows all imports from the Uyghur Region – unless the importer can prove with clear and convincing evidence that no forced labour was used in any part of the production process.

Read more in our blog from 2022.

Overall, the UFLPA is arguably the strongest forced labour law that has been introduced in recent years.

What has been the impact of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act so far?

Since enforcement, US Customs has detained over 4000 shipments, at an overall value of almost $1.4 billion dollars. The industries affected include:

  • electronics (including solar components),
  • aluminium (a key component for the global automobile industry),
  • fashion and textiles,
  • fruit, and others.

Global data already suggests that there is a decline in the global demand for Uyghur Region cotton as a result of this law, among other factors. Research also suggests that the UFLPA is driving accelerated efforts to diversify solar supply chains, to reduce reliance on the Uyghur Region. In short, the impact of the UFLPA is already starting to be felt.

When shipments are detained, companies, in at least some sectors, are being asked to provide an unprecedented level of disclosure on their supply chains i.e. to provide information on where and how products were made, in order to have their products released for entry into the USA. At Anti-Slavery International, we have been asking for companies to be required to disclose their supply chains for many years, as a key prerequisite of responsible business conduct to target forced labour.

These heightened disclosure requirements on companies are a hugely progressive step forward in the global fight against forced labour. After decades of companies refusing to provide transparency on their supply chains, we now see accelerated corporate efforts to trace cotton and other inputs, demonstrating that this tracing is possible when the right pressure is applied. The implications of this go far beyond Uyghur forced labour, laying the foundations for strong laws around the world, as companies can no longer claim that it is too difficult to trace the origin of their goods.

What needs to be improved in enforcing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act?

$1.4 billion dollars may sound like a lot, but we know that this only reflects a drop in the ocean in the global trade of goods made off the backs of persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim-majority peoples. Our civil society partners in the United States are calling for the US Government to further strengthen enforcement of this ground-breaking law. This includes by:

  • Expanding the sectors upon which the authorities focus enforcement.
  • Expanding the list of manufacturers complicit in Uyghur forced labour.
  • Ensure indirect import routes are targeted.
  • Making sure companies can’t sneak complicit goods across borders, by relying on small shipments.

  • Expanding the sectors upon which the authorities focus enforcement. The current priority list for enforcement includes apparel and cotton, tomatoes and polysilicon, a key component in solar panels, but doesn’t yet include sectors which have more recently been shown to be grossly exposed to Uyghur forced labour – like car (traditional and electric) materials, and products made with PVC. We had hoped to see this list updated for the anniversary of the UFLPA, however, this has not yet happened.
  • Expanding the list of manufacturers complicit in Uyghur forced labour. A key enforcement tool of the UFLPA is the “Entity List”, which lists specific companies which are directly using Uyghur forced labour, and which automatically fall under the “rebuttable presumption”. This list currently includes only 22 Chinese companies – despite academics and researchers having provided the US Authorities the evidence to be able to add hundreds, if not thousands, more entities to the list.
  • Ensure indirect import routes are targeted. Inputs from the Uyghur Region are exported around the world to third countries, to be processed or manufactured into final products for export to consumers. Enforcement must better address these indirect routes.
  • Making sure companies can’t sneak complicit goods across borders, by relying on small shipments. Current US laws allows shipments under $800 to avoid the need for any documentation. Research has suggested that major companies are evading regulation by importing goods in small shipments like this. This also creates a significantly unlevel playing field between compliant companies and others.

Ongoing global loopholes

As we said last year, the impact of the UFLPA will face limitations globally unless there are comparable steps in other countries. Under the UFLPA, all importers to the US have the opportunity to re-export products that are blocked from entry into the USA. In effect, this means they can legally turn around their shipment, and send it all the other markets which lack the comparable laws. Right now, no other country does take comparable efforts to address forced labour imports, and therefore there is a huge risk that other markets are becoming dumping grounds for Uyghur forced labour goods.

However, civil society, trade unions, progressive businesses and investors, and parliamentarians around the world are working hard to introduce laws which control the import of forced labour products (import controls). These include:

  • In the EU, progress is being made towards a Forced Labour Regulation which would target both imports and domestic products made with forced labour.
  • Both Canada and Mexico are required to take enforcement measures against imports of forced labour goods under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). There is pressure upon these governments to take these obligations seriously, and put resources against the enforcement of import controls.
  • In both Japan and Australia, parliamentarians and civil society are raising demands for import controls, through legislative and other opportunities.
  • In the UK, we, together with partners, continue to call for import controls to be introduced as part of a toolbox of measures to increase corporate accountability for forced labour.

Joining forces: what can the public do?

Your support has been vital in our campaign to date, to put pressure on both companies and governments to do more to stop Uyghur forced labour and to let our Uyghur allies know that we won’t accept products made with forced labour. However, more must still be done.

If you’re based in the UK, please join our campaign calling the UK Government to ban the import of all products tainted by forced labour and modern slavery.

Members of the public should also continue to call on companies to seek assurances that they are taking all meaningful steps to remove Uyghur forced labour from their supply chains.

Please tweet and write to your favourite companies, or support our allies’ campaigns. Every single action is critical for our campaign to end forced labour. Thank you.