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How goods made with forced labor end up in your local American store

The Chinese flag is visible behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, south of Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region.
GREG BAKER
/
AFP via Getty Images
The Chinese flag is visible behind razor wire at a housing compound in Yangisar, south of Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region.

Far out in China's western region of Xinjiang, authorities have imprisoned thousands of people from the Uyghur ethnic minority without legal justification.

They've also coerced thousands of Uyghurs into state or factory jobs.

China says these efforts are their attempts to combat terrorism in the region and promote economic growth. And countries including the U.S buy millions of dollars worth of goods exported from Xinjiang every year.

But a new report from C4ADS, a nonprofit data analysis group based in Washington, says those goods that consumers worldwide are buying could be made with forced labor.

Irina Bukharin is the lead analyst on the report, and joined All Things Considered to explain why this is taking place in Xinjiang, and what U.S policymakers may plan to do about it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

Why is this taking place in Xinjiang?

The Chinese government is interpreting the distinct identity, religion and culture of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in Xinjiang, who are predominantly Muslim, as both a national security threat and as a cultural threat to Chinese unity.

And as such, they've been imprisoning Uyghurs and forcing them into coercive labor conditions, uprooting them from the communities, and sending them to work in fields and factories hundreds of miles from their families.

China has closed off access to Xinjiang, and that makes it harder to prove whether forced labor is happening by talking to people directly. But the Uyghur diaspora has provided overwhelming evidence through sharing their own experiences. Those relatives and community members [share] that forced labor is taking place at a systemic level in Xinjiang.

Who is behind this system of coercion?

It's a mix, stemming from government policies. State owned enterprises can be the ones that are employing Uyghurs and other minorities in these coercive conditions. However, private companies are also the ones that are implementing these policies, and really engaging in the oppressive actions themselves.

What kinds of goods are these workers being forced to make?

Xinjiang has significant agricultural, extractive, and manufacturing sectors, which means these are common products that are entering global supply chains, and they're coming to our houses. In particular, some of the goods that we identified that permeate global supply chains are cotton, tomato based products, pepper based products, and various items of fabric as well as minerals.

Are there broader sanctions coming that the U.S. government is planning on these goods from Xinjiang?

Yes. Last year, Congress passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which is coming into effect this coming June. It, among various other measures, presumes that all goods made in Xinjiang were made with forced labor, and therefore are banned from entering the United States.

What recommendations do you have for policymakers and consumer groups to monitor these goods and address these challenges?

Companies and governments need to invest more in some of the methodologies that C4ADS has used to trace supply chains from Xinjiang. This means relying more on publicly available information. Sometimes this can be easy — there can be a lot of information that is available on the Chinese language internet, and Chinese company websites. That tells you whether or not goods are coming from Xinjiang, but sometimes this can be quite difficult as well.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.