Apparel industry representatives have warned the bill would not help end forced labour or the larger campaign of oppression

Apparel industry representatives have warned the bill would not help end forced labour or the larger campaign of oppression

The US House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to take comprehensive action against the import of apparel and other goods from China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) – a move US apparel industry executives have previously warned would cause massive upheaval and supply chain disruption.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (H.R. 6210) establishes the legal presumption that any products arriving at US ports that were manufactured in the Uyghur Region, or containing inputs from the region, were made using forced labour. Unless the importer can prove there was no forced labour used in its production, the product is considered illegal and is barred from entering the US.

Campaign group Clean Clothes Campaign (CCC) said the House has recognised that forced labour is ubiquitous in the Uyghur Region and that the climate of political repression makes it impossible to do the kind of labour inspections that would allow brands and retailers to ensure that any farm or factory is free of forced labour. Given this reality, the only way brands and retailers can keep forced labour out of their supply chains and out of goods they import into the US is to extricate their supply chains from the Uyghur Region, it noted.

It is estimated that 80% of China's cotton is produced in the Uyghur region, representing around 22% of the global market in 2018-19, much of which is made into yarn used in textile and apparel produced in the region, and other factories globally.  

A joint statement from the American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), the National Retail Federation (NRF), the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), and the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA) said while they supported the legislation's goals, the bill would not help end forced labour practices and repression of ethnic minorities.

"Instead, the legislation would establish a "guilty until proven innocent" blanket standard, directly contradicting US jurisprudence and due process, branding anything and everything associated with XUAR as made with forced labour. Such an approach would do further harm to human rights, economic development, legitimate supply chains, and will jeopardise the livelihoods of millions of workers worldwide without specifically addressing human rights concerns. 

"A successful solution for all involved, above all for the workers themselves, will require state-to-state engagement and collaborative partnerships. The US Government must take a leadership role in an effort that combines industry, NGOs, unions, Congress, the US government, and other governments. That effort must develop and implement a comprehensive and holistic strategy that most effectively advances us to our mutual end goal – to end forced labour practices and the larger campaign they fuel. We stand ready to work with all stakeholders to find an enforceable solution that effectively protects human rights."

Last week, the CEO of AAFA warned US lawmakers a total US import ban on cotton products from the Xinjiang region over forced labour concerns would "wreak unending havoc" on global supply chains

It came as the US imposed five new Withhold Release Orders (WRO) were issued on products imported into the United States from China – including apparel items and cotton linked to the Xinjiang region.

The Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act now awaits a vote in the Senate, but could well be derailed by the November elections as well as Senate proceedings to confirm a new Supreme Court justice. If it misses this congressional session, it will have to be reintroduced next year. 

Separately, China has hit back at allegations over its treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang by saying its actions in the region are focused on counterterrorism and anti-separatism.