US senator Bob Menendez calls for action on forced labour in China's Xinjiang

In a photo taken Jan 31, 2020, US Senator Bob Menendez exits the chamber at the US Capitol during President Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial in Washington, DC. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - A senior US senator accused US firms on Tuesday (March 10) of willfully ignoring "horrific"forced labour conditions in China's Xinjiang region, urging the Commerce Department to stop American firms and consumers from buying goods produced with such labour.

In a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said recent reports indicated a wide array of US companies, including Apple, Kraft Heinz, Coca-Cola, and the Gap, had sourced, or continued to source, goods from Xinjiang.

"Moreover, there are consistent reports that US companies fail to undertake basic labour and human rights assessments in Xinjiang, in essence wilfully ignoring the horrific conditions of forced labour in Xinjiang," Mr Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said in the letter.

"In failing to uphold their responsibilities to vet their supply chains, these companies may be complicit in the mass repression of Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups," he said.

The firms Mr Menendez mentioned did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

On Wednesday, China denied instances of forced labour by Uighurs.

"The labour contracts are signed on the basis of equality and mutual consultation with the employer, and employees receive the appropriate compensation," foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing.

The United Nations estimates more than a million Muslim Uighurs have been detained in camps in Xinjiang in recent years.

China denies it violates Uighur rights and says the camps are designed to stamp out terrorism and provide vocational skills.

Mr Menendez, who has called for sanctions on China over the issue, also sought information about US government contractors who source cotton from China, which produces 84 per cent of its cotton in far western Xinjiang.

"The use of materials that are manufactured using forced labour is unacceptable for products in US markets," he said in the letter.

In a report this month, an Australian think tank said tens of thousands of ethnic Uighurs had been transferred to work in factories across China supplying 83 global brands in conditions"that strongly suggest forced labour."

Nike Inc, which was included in that report, said in a statement on its website that while the company "does not directly source products from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region," it had been conducting due diligence with suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of people from the region.

On Monday, the Washington-based Fair Labour Association, which runs due diligence for major multinational firms, said it was "deeply troubled by credible reports of forced labour and other violations of fundamental rights in Xinjiang."

It said, "We have directed our affiliates to review their direct and indirect sourcing relationships, identify alternative sourcing opportunities, and develop timebound plans to ensure that their sourcing is in line with the FLA's principles."

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