UK’s new rules on goods from Xinjiang ‘missed opportunity’, activists say


Anti-slavery activists said the British measures that address forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region are not strong enough to stop the abuses and are “a missed opportunity” in making companies take concrete actions.

The activists’ statement on Tuesday came after the UK government said it would introduce rules for businesses aimed at keeping goods from Xinjiang out of company supply chains.

In order to toughen London’s response to allegations of forced labour, the government announced new rules starting with guidance on sourcing and a review of export controls to fines for firms that flout a 2015 anti-slavery law.

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

The United Nations estimates that at least 1 million Uyghurs and other minorities are detained in camps in Xinjiang and many of them are said to be put to work.

Beijing maintains their denial of these charges and said the camps are vocational centres tasked with battling extremism.

Worldwide, 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.

“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 (US$49 million) that fail to publish an annual transparency statement as required by the Modern Slavery Act.

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. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)