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UK rules on goods from China's Xinjiang seen as soft on business

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 12 January 2021 16:05 GMT

FILE PHOTO: An ethnic Uighur woman stands on the side of a road as Chinese paramilitary police ride on a truck on a main street in Urumqi, China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region July 9, 2009. REUTERS/ Nir Elias

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Fining companies that flout Britain’s Modern Slavery Act is insufficient to stop labour abuses, activists say

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, Jan 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British measures to tackle forced labour in China's Xinjiang region do not go far enough and are "a missed opportunity" to make companies clean up their operations, activists said on Tuesday.

The government said it would introduce rules for businesses aimed at keeping goods from Xinjiang out of supply chains - from guidance on sourcing and a review of export controls to fines for firms that flout a 2015 anti-slavery law.

At least 1 million Uighurs and other minorities are detained in camps in Xinjiang, according to estimates by the United Nations, and many of them are said to be put to work. Beijing denies the charges.

Governments and companies alike are under growing pressure to denounce China's treatment of minorities in Xinjiang and take action to ensure their goods are not tainted by rights abuses.

Anti-slavery activists said the new British measures would not compel companies to take concrete action to prevent the abuse of Uighurs in their supply chains, calling for more stringent rules.

"The government should not hide behind tepid improvements to the Modern Slavery Act, and pretend this is meaningful action to end Uighur forced labour," said Chloe Cranston, business and human rights manager at Anti-Slavery International.

"Guidance is just guidance ... and the Modern Slavery Act is just a reporting requirement," she said on Twitter.

Among the measures announced on Tuesday, Britain will fine firms with a turnover of at least 36 million pounds ($49 million) that fail to publish an annual transparency statement as required by the Modern Slavery Act.

Details of the fines have not yet been specified.

A fifth of about 18,625 companies required to comply with Britain's anti-slavery law have not issued statements, according to Transparency in the Supply Chain (TISC) - a public database.

Britain's anti-slavery tsar Sara Thornton welcomed the new measures but said the threat of fines was not enough and urged the government to force non-compliant firms to file a statement.

Yet the reporting requirement has been criticised as inadequate by many activists who are calling for laws compelling companies to take preventative action to tackle modern slavery and hold them liable for any abuses across their supply chains.

"The government has missed an opportunity to guide a meaningful shift away from exploitation and forced labour wherever it occurs," said Joanna Ewart-James, executive director of the anti-slavery organisation Freedom United.

"Reporting requirements are not enough to hold companies accountable - we need business and government to be held liable for rights abuses in their supply chains and victims should be able to seek redress," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

British retailer Marks & Spencer last week became one of the first major brands to back a civil society initiative to stop forced labour in cotton and garment sourcing from Xinjiang.

Related stories:

U.S. bans cotton imports from China producer XPCC citing Xinjiang 'slave labor'

UK to big brands: do more to avoid forced labour in China's Xinjiang

Brands urged to stop sourcing from China's Xinjiang over forced labour fears       

($1 = 0.7355 pounds) (Reporting by Kieran Guilbert; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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