Imports Subject to the UFLPA are Down, Suggesting the Law is Working as Intended

By Matthew McMullan
Mar 22 2023 |
The Uyghur flag. Getty Images

Forced labor in Xinjiang will be a topic of the next Select Committee on the CCP hearing, coming up on Thursday evening.

Last week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) held a news conference to talk about importers’ compliance with the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), the stringent law enacted last year that bars products wholly or partially made in China’s Xinjiang region from entering the United States.

CBP is responsible for enforcing the UFLPA, under which importers don’t get the benefit of the doubt; products coming out of Xinjiang are presumed to have been made using forced labor, and it must be convincingly proven that they weren’t.

“You no longer have the luxury of ignorance,” said U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Labor Thea Lee of multinational companies that choose to source from Xinjiang.

The message to these companies is pretty straightforward: Move your supply chains out of Xinjiang or sell the goods you produce someplace else. And CBP’s data shows the message is being received, as the total value of detained shipments has declined in each economic quarter since the UFLPA took effect.

At the press conference, CBP even unveiled an interactive UFLPA “dashboard” through which you can see the amounts of detained, released, and barred shipments, broken down by industry, country of origin, and quarter. It’s pretty slick, easy to use, and shows this kind of proactive policy can wean businesses off of the supply chains they shouldn’t depend on.

Now, it’s worth noting that businesses are always looking for new ways to lower their production costs, and that very often means keeping labor cheap as possible. In the U.S., it’s the reason many American companies are so hostile to union activity and some states are actively relaxing child labor laws. There’s also plenty of prison labor at work here, too!  

Cheap labor is also among the main reasons so many American companies packed up and headed for China after the U.S. normalized trade relations in 2000. Cheap Chinese labor was a huge draw for years for the business class: China had a huge, impoverished population willing to work for very little compensation, and even while there’s plenty of worker unrest independent unions there remain illegal. They aren’t very good about negotiating pay raises.

But what’s happening right now in Xinjiang is different. Even as the Chinese economy has grown and living standards and wages rise have risen, and some manufacturers have gone elsewhere to find more exploitable workers, there’s not a lot of recourse for the people in Xinjiang subjected to forced labor programs, which multiple reports argue the Chinese state is applying to local ethnic groups – namely the Uyghurs – as part of a program to cow them into obedience and assimilation so it can better exploit the region’s ample resources and make it a more productive contributor to the larger Chinese economy. These reports are the reason for the UFLPA’s very being.

Forced labor in Xinjiang and allegations of other abuses there – of things like compulsory sterilization, mass detention, forced cohabitation – are why a United Nations body has said what’s happening may constitute crimes against humanity. The U.S. government has been blunter, calling it a genocide. And it will be among the topics Thursday evening when the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Committee on United States House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party holds a hearing on “the Chinese Communist Party’s Ongoing Uyghur Genocide.”

It’s likely to get very explicit. The witness list includes a few people that have gone through these Xinjiang re-education camps and emerged with incredibly harrowing stories, which I won’t disservice by trying to recount here. But it also includes academics like Dr. Adrian Zenz, who has written extensively about the forced labor practices being carried out there.

Anyway, this will be appointment viewing for casual followers of the dystopian beat. Tune in Thursday night at 7 pm ET: