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The UK is failing to do enough to prevent goods produced using forced labour in China from being sold in the UK, charities and business groups have warned.
Human rights groups told Byline Times that the UK is falling behind its international allies, creating the risk it could become a dumping ground for tainted goods.
The claims come just over a week after Foreign Secretary James Cleverly visited China, the most senior UK figure to do so in more than five years. During the visit, he claimed to have “made clear the UK’s strength of feeling about the mass incarceration of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang”.
However, charities, campaigners and businesses all said that existing British legislation – namely the Modern Slavery Act – was insufficient to tackle the problem in the Xinjiang region.
The US estimates that at least 100,000 people of the minority Uyghur ethnic group are still being subjected to state-sanctioned forced labour in camps, in what some have described as a genocide. Other estimates are far higher.
However, products sold in the UK are still likely to contain elements made using this labour. These include clothing, with more than 80% of China’s cotton being sourced from the region; and solar panels, with Xinjiang accounting for nearly half of solar-grade polysilicon production.
Rahima Mahmut, UK director of the World Uyghur Congress, said: “Given the extensive use of forced labour in the Uyghur region, it’s plausible any product from the Uyghur homeland carries a dark history.”
A Government spokesman said that “modern slavery is a barbaric crime, which is why the Government remains committed to tackling the issue of forced labour in supply chains in China, and is taking robust action”.
The Modern Slavery Act: the Solution or Full of Holes?
When challenged on its record, the Government often points to the Modern Slavery Act, introduced in 2015. But critics told Byline Times that it is failing to properly address the scourge of forced or coerced labour across the world.
Central to the legislation is a requirement on businesses to report on their actions to tackle modern slavery. All companies with revenue of more than £36 million a year must publish a modern slavery statement on their websites which must have been signed-off by a director.
A report published last year by the Financial Reporting Council found that around one in 10 companies had failed to produce a statement or provide a link to one on their website – a clear breach of the rules.
Last May, the Government said that it would introduce fines for non-compliance, but this has yet to be enacted. Around 11,500 modern slavery statements covering 40,000 organisations have been submitted since March 2021.
The crucial failing, according to campaigners, is that it is simply a reporting requirement and does not stipulate that any real action needs to be taken.
Patricia Carrier, of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, said: “There’s very little a company is legally required to do. As it stands right now, a company can report that it has taken no steps to identify modern slavery in its supply chains and that is compliant with the legislation.”
Even some of the country’s biggest businesses are calling for more targeted legislation. The British Retail Consortium, which represents some of the UK’s biggest retailers, said the Government should introduce mandatory human rights due diligence and appoint an independent anti-slavery commissioner.
Chloe Cranston, of the charity Anti-Slavery International, said the Act is “completely unfit for purpose and wholly insufficient, not only to address forced labour of Uyghurs, but actually forced labour anywhere in the world”.
Mahmut added: “The existing Modern Slavery Act falls short in enforcing thorough checks within supply chains in preventing products borne of Uyghur forced labour into UK markets. A robust framework like the ‘forced labour provision’ is vital to ensure rigorous supply chain scrutiny.”
A Government spokesman said that “we encourage companies to monitor their supply chains with rigour to uncover and remedy any instances of modern slavery they may find to ensure human rights are protected”.
US Leading the Way
However, even with stronger due diligence legislation, Xinjiang poses a unique problem for companies due to the difficulty of conducting audits in the region.
A spokesman for the Ethical Trading Initiative, which promotes better practices among businesses, said: “Even enhanced human rights due diligence faces significant limitations in the country, and it remains difficult to guarantee the absence of Uyghur exploitation and state-imposed forced labour from supply chains based there.”
Last summer, the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act came into force in the US. It directly bans companies from importing goods tainted by Uyghur forced labour.
Some countries in the EU are also on the cusp of introducing their own stronger due diligence legislation.
The US law is the only one which specifically targets Uyghur forced labour. Last year, roughly 1,000 shipments of solar panels were blocked at the border over fears that they may contain parts made in Xinjiang. More than a third of these were later released.
This month, the chair of the Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, tabled an amendment to the Energy Bill warning that UK solar could become a “dumping ground” for tainted goods.
Rahima Mahmut said: “It’s high time the UK Government enforces an import ban on goods from this region, fortifying our stance against such profound human rights violations.”
Yasmine Ahmed, UK Director of Human Rights Watch, added: “The Foreign Secretary needs to take action to ensure that no UK business is profiting from the forced labour of Uyghurs. It is time for the UK Government to follow the lead of the US, Canada and European countries and introduce human rights due diligence laws, import bans and closed loopholes in its modern slavery laws. Minister Cleverly needs to put his words into action.”
The Government said that Cleverly had substantive discussions regarding Xinjiang during his visit.
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What are Businesses Doing?
The British Retail Consortium said its members have been working closely with the Government to tackle slavery, but urged ministers to offer “further clarity” on how to conduct business responsibly in China.
A spokesperson said: “The BRC believes that the most effective approach to addressing the concerning human rights issues in China requires a government-to-government dialogue, as well as collaboration between government, industry, civil society groups and representatives of workers at the centre of the allegations.”
The solar industry in the UK and Europe has developed a voluntary code of conduct which will require firms to audit their supply chains more thoroughly. It is due to be rolled-out from December.
Chris Hewett, chief executive of Solar Energy UK, said the industry takes human rights issues “very seriously” and has been working to improve supply chain transparency.
The Ethical Trading Initiative said it would back a law which requires mandated human rights due diligence. Businesses that are members are already expected to map supply chains and conduct human rights checks.
The Government said it has introduced new guidance for businesses on the risks of doing business in Xinjiang, as well as “enhanced export controls”.