Forced Labor Issues Getting Watered Down by Democrats in Congress. Why?

The Senate’s version of the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act (S.2792) – a military spending budget – had Democrats reject an amendment to ban forced labor from defense procurement contracts. It was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) who tried it getting it in there.

The House version (H.R. 4350) Section 836 bans government procurement from the Xinjiang province of China, the infamous open-air prison of hundreds of thousands of Muslims. Not to mention the actual prisons, or re-education camps as the Chinese Communist Party calls them – which has sterilized ethnic minorities and transfers thousands of men to work construction and factory labor without pay.

Customs and Border Protection has banned numerous items at a handful of companies from selling everything from cotton to polysilicon to companies making things for the U.S. market. The House bill hasn’t passed yet but even if it does, it doesn’t have the teeth that the Rubio (bipartisan) amendment had. That one was a full-blown commercial ban, not just something for defense contractors.

Stand-alone bills going after China for forced labor are unlikely to pass. Instead, members of Congress behind the amendments on forced labor have tried inserting them in other bills. Rubio and co-sponsors of the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, including leading Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, would ban all commercial goods made with prison labor in Xinjiang.

CPA believes this is the best way forward, but we are not getting those amendments in any of these bills, including – ironically — the “China bill”.

The most obvious forced labor provision can be found in the recently passed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260), initially dubbed “the China bill”. USICA calls for more investigations into forced labor violations in Xinjiang, and sanctions on individuals responsible for human rights violations. What is needed is bans on imports from Xinjiang and/or any company deemed part of the Xinjiang prison labor system, which should include prison transfers outside of Xinjiang.

USICA is still waiting for a House version of the bill, held up by Nancy Pelosi in order to pass the Build Back Better Act (H.R. 5376). That bill passed the House last month.

Back to USICA: Section 3308 states that “United States agencies engaged with China on trade, climate, defense, or other bilateral issues should include human rights abuses in the Xinjiang province as a consideration in developing United States policy.”

But seeing how that is not law, climate czar John Kerry was able to ignore labor violations and signed a framework agreement with China that included weaker restrictions on Xinjiang Hoshine Silicon Industry, and the dropping of a trade case against Chinese solar manufacturers in Southeast Asia.

Like many other acts of Congress, the USICA Senate bill calls for more studies on “serious human rights abuses…in China, including Xinjiang” and “forced or child labor involving ethnic minorities in China” under Section 5302. The time frame? One year.

USICA also talks about “trading consistent with American values” – something the Biden Administration hops on often. The bill calls for the prevention of imported goods produced by forced labor but that is as far as it goes. There are no other details other than in Section 2519 which calls for a “Sense of Congress on Forced Labor” which is nice but has no legal binding. In that Section, the Federal Government “shall not engage in research, partnerships, contracts, or other agreements with any entity, including any country or institution of higher education, that has affiliation with a country that engages in forced labor.” If that had any legal binding, it would forbid companies like EcoHealth from partnering with the Wuhan Institute of Virology on a grant funded by the National Institutes of Health, which led to the creation of the SARS2 pandemic.

Unless the House includes something with meaner teeth, this dog will be all bark and no bite when it comes to ousting forced labor from American supply chains.

The roughly $1 trillion Infrastructure and Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law last month by President Biden, also added forced labor rules when it comes to electric vehicle supply chains.

Then there is the recently passed Build Back Better Act (H.R. 5376).

This is mostly money for the National Forest System, public health, housing, education and family leave. There is a Forced Labor Prohibition (Sec. 90027) here, too.

It says none of the funds provided to government departments listed under Title IX of the Act can go to a contract, subcontract, grant, or loan to an entity that is listed on the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020. This would include Department of Energy grants or any other funding going to electric vehicle-related infrastructure and supercomputers.

The Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act became law last year. This law imposes sanctions on foreign individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang. A study with names of Chinese individuals involved in Xinjiang detention centers was supposed to be made available to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee;  Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; The House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Financial Services Committee by the end of 2020. CPA does not know the status of that report, but if it is just individual names and not companies, the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act is going to be a better fit all around.

There seems to be little true political will in any of these recent bills to tackle Xinjiang prison labor. The provisions calling for more studies demonstrate that there are strong interests pushing back on forced labor in global supply chains.

On Dec.2, Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin said Congress was not taking any action at all on China’s forced labor. In fact, let’s just call it slave labor because if it’s work against an individual will, with little to no pay, then it’s akin to slavery.

Here is what Rogin wrote about the Rubio bill.

“Another year has gone and the bill still lingers. Pelosi has been a champion for human rights in China for decades, but the fight is not over and the ball is in her court. Overall, it’s up to both parties and both chambers to act to stop a genocide now. There’s no good reason to delay,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, on Friday the White House released its National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, which mentions forced labor making products that comprise our supply chains. But, it has no specific trade prohibitions other than restating the law on WROs on forced labor goods making it more academic than a policy of action. The Executive and Legislative Branches will have to decide whether they’re going to study forced labor forever in a collection of bills or bar it from the U.S. supply chain as Customs has tried doing. The Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act is one such solution to keep the screws tightening on Xinjiang.

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