The terrible situation arising out of forced labour in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) can be ended through sustained government-to-government pressure that is led by the US government and involving its allies and all stakeholders, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), whose president and chief executive officer Steve Lamar recently testified before the House Ways and Means Committee trade sub-committee.

“The situation in XUAR is of a scale, scope, and complexity that is unprecedented in modern supply chains. Moreover, forced labour—as horrendous as it is—is only one component of a much larger campaign of repression. These are state-sponsored programmes and they are extensive. They require state-sponsored solutions,” he said while testifying.

The sub-committee hearing on ‘Enforcing the Ban on Imports Produced by Forced Labor in Xinjiang’ was held on September 17. Lamar urged the US government to use tools at the country’s disposal properly. To be the most effective, he said, withhold release orders (WROs) and other sanctions tools need to be “targeted, transparent, clearly articulated, prospective and developed with the trusted industry partners that will ultimately enforce them”.

“Our industry consistently strives to go beyond mere compliance, but when the tools themselves are vague and poorly defined or retroactive (as were the WROs announced this week) even basic compliance (and enforcement by CBP [Customs and Border Protection] and its supply chain partners) becomes next to impossible,” he said.

“We have been hearing in the last few weeks about a rumored ‘blanket WRO’—one that would, for example, declare all cotton from the XUAR ‘in part or in whole’ as products made with forced labour. Such a WRO would no doubt make headlines, but it would wreak unending havoc to human rights, economic development, and legitimate supply chains—which are already battered by COVID-19—all over the world,” he said.

“As a country, we simply do not have the capability or capacity to implement, comply with, or enforce a blanket WRO. Given these constraints, such a WRO would take years before it would have its desired impact in China. Moreover, given China’s ability to shift cotton to other markets, including its own vast market, it is unlikely that a regional WRO would have its desired impact of impeding the use of Uighur forced labour at all,” he said.

“We need to keep the pressure focused on those actors in China that are perpetuating this system. We need to evaluate our joint efforts through the lens of what will most effectively get us to our end goal. We need a partnership that combines industry, NGOs, unions, Congress, the US government, and other governments to take a comprehensive approach to resolving the horrific situation in XUAR,” the AAFA president added.