Government must crack down on firms choosing to adopt 'wilful blindness' to labour abuse risks, say lawmakers on scrutiny committee
By Sonia Elks
LONDON, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain should look to crack down on forced labour of Uighurs in China's Xinjiang region with a blacklist of companies that cannot show clean supply chains and tough penalties for those which break anti-slavery law, lawmakers said on Wednesday.
Some firms operate in "wilful blindness" over labour abuse risks in their supply chains, while the government is failing to properly enforce human rights standards, said the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) scrutiny committee.
"Amid compelling evidence of abuses, there has been a sorry absence of significant new government measures to prohibit UK businesses from profiting from the forced labour of Uighurs in Xinjiang and other parts of China," said committee member Nusrat Ghani in a statement.
"It is deeply concerning that companies selling to millions of British customers cannot guarantee that their supply chains are free from forced labour."
The United Nations estimates at least one million Uighurs and other minority Muslims are held in camps in China's far west region of Xinjiang.
China has rejected accusations of persecution and forced labour of Uighurs, saying the camps offer vocational training and help to fight terrorism and extremism.
Zhang Ming, China's ambassador to the European Union, said on Tuesday that "China haters" were spreading lies for political gain.
He warned against planned EU sanctions for human rights violations, saying Beijing would not yield if Brussels interfered in its internal affairs.
Fashion brands are seen as particularly high-risk for Uighur labour abuses through their use of cotton. More than 80% of China's cotton comes from Xinjiang.
While most brands say they do not have relationships with factories in Xinjiang, their supply chains are likely to be tainted by cotton picked by Uighurs that is exported and used by other suppliers, anti-slavery activists have warned.
Lawmakers said many brands reported robust procedures to prevent rights abuses but failed to carry out the "necessary and basic due diligence" to ensure their supply chains were not implicated in slave labour in a new report.
Meanwhile the government's 2015 Modern Slavery Act is now outdated and "has no teeth" to deal with rulebreakers, it said, and the BEIS business department shows "little sign" of leading investigations on British business links to forced labour.
Companies operating in Xinjiang must prove that they are not in breach of the Modern Slavery Act, said the committee.
It called on the government to report on the feasibility of publishing a whitelist of firms that had proved they were clean of abuses and a blacklist of those who failed to provide evidence or to answer questions.
The government should also strengthen the supply chain transparency obligations for companies and introduce "tough fines" for non-compliance, it said.
A spokesman for the government said it was taking forward plans to extend the Modern Slavery Act to cover some public bodies as well as large companies, and to introduce financial penalties for organisations that don't comply.
"Forced labour is one of the world's most despicable practices and the government will not stand for it, whether this exploitation takes place in the UK or abroad," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement.
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(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith 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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