The Senate passed the Uyghur Labor Defense bill aimed at protecting the rights of the Uyghur people by imposing restrictions on the goods imported from the Xinjiang region, where the Chinese government has been detaining hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uyghur and using them as slave labor force, practices that have been deemed as a genocide by the U.S. government. Congress passed the bill despite strong opposition from massive corporations like Nike and Coca-Cola, which had been lobbying against it.
The bill was passed almost unanimously by the House earlier this week, with only Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) voting against it. However, it faced a very contentious process in the Senate as both Republicans and Democrats also argued about Biden’s ambassador nominations and even the unrelated issue, eventually, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) reached a bipartisan agreement to get the bill and Biden’s nominee through Congress.
The bill was first introduced in 2020 by Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeff Merkey (D-OR) but it did not get a vote in the Senate at the time. Senator Rubio, in remarks to the floor, just a few moments before the legislation passed the Senate, said that the bill “you can’t import products into the United States that are made by slave labor in Xinjiang, or from entities that are associated with the government of that region. And if you’re a company who is manufacturing in that area, you’re going to need to prove that slaves didn’t make it”. The legislation establishes that Xinjiang products can be imported to the United States Customs and Border Protection determined the goods were not produced with slave labor.
The bill also states that the President needs to hand Congress a list enumerating the companies that have been knowingly facilitating the use of slave labor from the Uyghur and other minority communities in China or are involved in efforts to contravene American law preventing the importation of goods made with Uyghur labor, giving the President the power to impose sanctions to those found to be violating the law.
Big corporations riled against the Uyghur Labor Defense bill
The legislation was approved with overwhelming bipartisan support, despite strong efforts by some big companies to derail the legislation. Businesses argued that the law imposes high burdens for companies to prove they are not using slave labor and that the opacity of Chinese supply chains might make it a very difficult task, with a 2020 New York Times article revealing that companies like Coca-Cola, Nike, and Apple were trying to convince Congress to water down some of the provisions of the law.
It makes sense why some big companies would be lobbying against the passage of the bill, as many of them have deep ties with Xinjiang and the Ughyr forced labor there. For example, a 2019 report showed that the iPhone’s selfie cameras are produced by a company called “O-Film Technology”, which uses Uyghur labor transferred directly from the Xinjiang province. The report states that these Uyghur workers are assigned highly politicized jobs and are expected to change their ideology gradually.
Nike has also been involved in this practice, with a 2020 Washington Post article revealing that one of the company’s factories, the Qingdao Taekwan Shoes Co, used hundreds of Uyghur workers. These laborers were forcibly removed from Xinjiang, are not allowed to go back without government authorization, and are under constant surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party.
Some of these corporations were also big donors of some of the lawmakers who tried to derail the passage of the bill. For example, Nike is the top contributor to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), who tried to derail the passage of the bill earlier today, arguing that the legislation should not pass unless Congress also agreed to an unrelated economic policy proposal of the Biden Administration.
Despite the opposition and efforts of many of these companies, the Uyghur labor Defense Bill passed both the House and the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support and has now been sent to Biden’s desk for his signature, a crucial blow against Beijing’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority in their country.