The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act came into force in the US yesterday, with Apple having failed in some of its earlier lobbying attempts around the law. (Technically, the law came into effect in December of last year, but enforcement began yesterday.)

The law bans US companies from importing goods manufactured in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region unless they can prove that there was no forced labor involved anywhere in the supply chain …

How did this law come about?

The Xinjiang region of China in question is officially known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region (XUAR). It’s home to a number of minority ethnic groups, notably the Turkic Uyghur people.

China has been accused of widespread human rights abuses against the Uyghur population, with many arguing that it rises to the level of genocide. The arguments for this include significant evidence of forced contraception, sterilization, and abortion.

Many Uyghur people have been sent to prison camps (usually given innocuous-sounding names, like “poverty alleviation programs”), with evidence that many of those detained have been required to carry out work for state-owned or -controlled companies. Others have been given the “choice” of detention centers or forced labor.

A number of Apple suppliers have been implicated in this use of forced labor. Apple has responded by quietly severing links with suppliers believed to be involved.

Apple says that it has zero tolerance for forced labor, and carries out surprise audits of its suppliers, terminating links to any found to be in violation of the company’s policies. But many argue that audits cannot be relied upon, as they depend on interviewing workers who may place themselves or their families at risk if they give truthful answers.

Campaigners said that Apple and other companies like Nike and Gap must err on the side of caution, and cease using suppliers who operate in this region.

Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act

Work on the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act began in 2020, with Apple hiring lobbyists to argue for changes to the proposed requirements. It wasn’t initially known what changes the iPhone maker sought, but sources did say that the company was trying to “water down” the bill.

It was later reported that Apple lobbied for three changes.

According to a document viewed by the New York Times, Apple’s suggested edits to the bill included extending some deadlines for compliance, releasing certain information about supply chains to congressional committees rather than to the public, and requiring Chinese entities to be ‘designated by the United States government’ as helping to surveil or detain Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.

This latter requirement would have passed responsibility for identifying Chinese companies that used forced labor from buyers, like Apple, to the US government. This attempt was not successful.

The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) says that it is right that companies have the responsibility, and that they should not rely on audits.

Those companies were lobbying the UFLPA and have stated that the due diligence that they’ve done either through their internal audits or auditors was enough—except five major auditing firms have left the Uyghur region precisely because they’re unable to perform audits with any degree of certainty or accountability or transparency […]

It seems almost laughable to me to think that some auditor can go into one of these factories that are run by a state enterprise and interview a Uyghur worker and get an answer that is reasonably free and not coerced by the Chinese government. It’s nonsensical to say that due diligence was working, because if they were working, you wouldn’t have Uyghur forced labor in your supply chain!

9to5Mac’s Take: The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act

One perfectly reasonable argument that has been made against the law is that it’s impossible to prove a negative. Companies like Apple can only do their best to investigate, and draw whatever conclusions they feel is possible under the circumstances.

However, this is kind of the point. If there is substantial evidence that Chinese companies operating in this region have used forced labor – as is the case – then using suppliers operating here carries a high risk of being inadvertently complicit. The only safe course of action is to refuse to have dealings with companies operating in this region.

This is indeed what the TTP urges:

There should be no dealings with Chinese state enterprises that have engaged in Uyghur forced labor or are operating in the Uyghur region, and more specifically here, companies that are partnered with the XPCC. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps are probably the largest supplier of Uyghur forced labor and they are essentially a paramilitary organization that has established massive control over production, resources, labor, and has been using that to benefit themselves and the Chinese government immensely.

These kinds of partnerships are unacceptable and completely unethical. … There is an element of complicity in continuing to financially support the profit incentive, the engine, of the Uyghur genocide.

Photo: Global Action Legal Network

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About the Author

Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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