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UK Lags Behind Tackling Forced Labor in Xinjiang

New Measures to Address Abuses in Chinese Region Insufficient

Workers amidst massive piles of cotton in China's Xinjiang province.  © 2015 Imaginechina via AP Images

The United Kingdom and Canada made coordinated announcements this week to help prevent British and Canadian businesses from being complicit in, or profiting from, human rights violations in China’s Xinjiang region.

The move follows growing calls across the political spectrum for the UK government to respond to the Chinese government’s escalating abuses, including credible complaints of forced labor, against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, which supplies nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton. The UK measures announced include guidance to British businesses on the risks they face, advice for public bodies on excluding suppliers where there is evidence of human rights abuses in supply chains, a review of export controls to Xinjiang, and fines for organizations that fail to meet their obligations.

The measures in the UK fall well short of those introduced by Canada and recently strengthened in the United States, namely the prohibition of goods produced wholly or in part by forced labor. Disappointingly, two of the “new” UK measures had already been announced by the government last year.

This is a significant missed opportunity for the UK to go beyond the mere reporting requirements of the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 and to bring in mandatory human rights due diligence legislation. Businesses themselves have called for firmer laws and a number of them, including Marks and Spencer, have signed a “call to action” in which they agree to extricate their supply chains from Xinjiang and provide an appropriate remedy for forced labor, including compensation for affected workers.

The UK’s announcement aimed to send a signal to China that the egregious human rights violations it is committing in Xinjiang will not be tolerated. That’s all well and good, but if the UK government is serious about this then it should introduce import bans and legal sanctions for businesses that fail to prevent and remedy human rights abuses, including forced labor, in their global supply chains.

It should also heed recommendations from this week’s Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission report and impose targeted sanctions on China’s officials and companies responsible for human rights abuses, and push at the United Nations for an international mechanism to monitor rights violations in the country.

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