Date: Friday, September 1st, 2023
Source: Sourcing Journal
That’s the proportion of tests conducted on clothing collected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in May that showed traces of forced labor-linked cotton from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
The results, which Reuters published Friday after obtaining them through the Freedom of Information Act, underscore the difficulties in keeping out the material as required by the nearly two-year-old Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, or UFLPA.
The tests were performed using a forensic standby called isotopic analysis, which can trace cotton to its point of origin by matching the sample’s concentration of stable elements—think carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen—with those of the purported environment.
While isotopic testing isn’t a routine process for the agency, officials at individual ports can request tests if they receive allegations about particular shipments or suspect that the goods can be traced to Xinjiang, Eric Choy, CBP’s executive director for trade remedy and law enforcement told the outlet in June.
This appears to be the case with the 37 garments that CBP examined in May, 10 of which returned as “consistent” with Xinjiang. Documents also note that it’s at least the third batch that officials have amassed as part of their enforcement efforts, with others obtained in December 2022 and this past April. Overall, 13 of 86 total tests, amounting to 15 percent, showed the same consistency with Xinjiang.
“It is in my view long overdue that the CBP uses this scientific method to provide independent determination of origin,” said Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and one of the leading authorities on the Chinese Communist Party’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, which many, including the United States, have dubbed genocide.
“I am not surprised how many products from Xinjiang are still entering the U.S., given the complexity of the supply chains and Beijing’s obfuscation strategies,” Zenz added. “This shows that much more needs to be done to effectively enforce the UFLPA.”
The odds of contamination, even if companies assiduously avoid Xinjiang are high. The region contributes 90 percent of China’s cotton, which in turn makes up one-fifth of the world’s total. Products grown and manufactured in Xinjiang can also be transported—or “laundered,” as Laura Murphy, a professor of human rights at Sheffield Hallam University, put it—through third countries such as Bangladesh, India and Vietnam, further muddying their provenance.
“Given the high rate of positive tests, it seems that companies are continuing to attempt to circumvent the UFLPA and are still not doing the due diligence necessary to make sure they’re not selling goods made with forced labor,” Murphy said.
Since last June, when the UFLPA went into effect, CBP has detained 877 garment, footwear and textile shipments worth $36 million. Of these, 380 were ultimately denied entry, most of them from China and Vietnam.
CBP doesn’t perform its own testing but has paid supply chain tracing firm Oritain $1.3 million since 2020 for its analysis, according to records obtained by Reuters, again through a Freedom of Information Act request. But the agency redacted the name of the vendor that tested the batches it collected in December, April and May and did not confirm whether it was Oritain that did so.
That such a process exists, however, is reassuring to Jewher Ilham, forced labor coordinator at the Worker Rights Consortium, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
“I am glad that such isotopic tests are available for governments and companies to use for testing if a product on the rack contains cotton or other elements from the Uyghur region as this may mean there is a high risk the product is tainted by Uyghur forced labor,” said Ilham, the daughter of jailed Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti. “These test results highlight the importance of CBP enforcing high evidentiary standards for importers during the admissibility review process of UFLPA implementation.”
Oritain, which is headquartered in New Zealand, has become a leading name in cotton forensics, particularly where UFLPA compliance is concerned. Nine Line Apparel, a T-shirt screen printer from Georgia, regularly uses Oritain to verify the origins of the blanks it purchases. Next Level Apparel, the wholesaler that failed one of these tests earlier this year, has also taken up with the firm on a long-term basis.
Same with Shein, which has faced mounting congressional scrutiny after a Bloomberg investigation uncovered traces of Xinjiang cotton in products purchased on separate occasions. The Chinese e-tail Goliath told Politico in June that thousands of tests that Oritain performed found that nearly 98 percent of its cotton did not come from Xinjiang. It also confirmed that it no longer sources cotton from China.
On Thursday, one year after the United Nations human rights office published a damning report about the litany of abuses occurring in Xinjiang, the agency said that it is still pushing for change.
“The situation in Xinjiang remains of concern,” the agency said in a statement. “Laws and policies assessed in our report are still in place. We continue to stand by that, publicly and bilaterally.”
Babur Ilchi, program manager at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said that Reuter’s findings confirm what Uyghur organizations and researchers have been saying: that there must be greater due diligence to ensure that no Uyghur forced labor goods are entering any market.
“It highlights a clear need for stronger enforcement and for Canada, the U.K. and the EU to avoid becoming a hot market for dumped Uyghur forced labor goods,” he said. “These goods are directly fuelling a genocide and should be locked out of consumer markets.”