U.S. Blocks Chinese Imports Over Alleged Forced Labor Practices

Date: Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Source: Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration on Monday banned cotton apparel, computer parts and other imports from companies and suppliers that allegedly relied on forced and imprisoned laborers in China’s Xinjiang region.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials issued orders for agents to hold shipments from four commercial entities, one training center and an industrial park that they suspect have handled goods made with forced labor, citing the power of a 1930s law that declared the importation of those goods illegal.

“The scourge of forced labor practices used in China is an unconscionable assault on innocent people and a threat to American producers,” said Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, during a press conference Monday, adding that the orders came after two years of investigation.

U.S. officials have condemned Chinese leaders in Beijing over alleged human-rights abuses that have unfolded against the mostly Muslim Uighur minority population in northwest China in recent years. The region produces a sizable portion of the world’s cotton, which some watchdog groups say relies on forced or prison labor to harvest it or turn it into yarn and fabric both in factories nearby and in neighboring countries.

A representative for the Chinese embassy cited past statements from Chinese officials, who maintain that operators in the region abide by international labor laws, and that government activities in the region are aimed at preventing terrorism.

Customs officials who suspect a product was made with forced labor can issue withhold-release orders for agents to stop that cargo from certain suppliers at a U.S. port. Stopped shipments trigger an investigation into how the goods were made and potentially steep fines. Officials have issued more orders since a 2016 law eliminated an exception that importers could use to bring in forced labor-made goods, escalating it to a top issue facing the trade industry.

On Monday, Customs officials ordered that shipments be held from Xinjiang Junggar Cotton and Linen Co., which they said has relied on prison labor in its cotton processing operations. Other withhold release orders involve goods from Hefei Bitland Information Technology Co., Yili Zhuowan Garment Manufacturing Co. and Baoding LYSZD Trade and Business Co., which CBP officials said use prison and forced labor to make apparel and electronics.

They also instructed customs agents to block shipments of hair products made by Lop County Hair Product Industrial Park and all products made within Lop County No. 4 Vocational Skills Education and Training Center over alleged reliance on forced and prison labor.

Representatives from Baoding LYSZD Trade and Business didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the order. Officials for the other entities couldn’t be reached.

U.S. Customs officials have stepped up monitoring of Xinjiang exports since 2018, when human-rights groups reported China was rounding up an estimated one million Uighurs in what appeared to be concentration camps in the western region of Xinjiang. The Chinese government has said it is fighting extremism in the region and has described the camps as vocational-training schools.

Since September 2019, customs officials have issued four prior withhold-release orders that named specific suppliers, drawing praise from other agencies and policy leaders who have also pushed the issue.

The announcement intensifies pressure on top U.S. apparel companies that put those goods in the hands of American consumers. Some of those companies have strained in recent years to figure out both how much of their cotton comes from the Xinjiang region and how freely the workers who handle it are operating.

Monday’s orders add momentum to earlier moves from Congress and other agencies within the Trump administration. The Commerce Department has added a series of Chinese companies to a U.S. trade blacklist of entities it says are linked to Uighur abuses. In July, the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security issued a formal advisory to the global business community, warning them of consequences they may face for relying on forced-labor tied to abuses in Xinjiang.

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