Broken Chain

Apple Faces New U.S. Law Targeting Uyghur Forced Labor

A new law presumes goods from China’s Xinjiang region are tainted by forced labor unless importers prove otherwise. Will it bring some accountability to Apple?

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act goes into effect on June 21, 2022, with implications for companies like Apple that do their manufacturing in China.

The new law blocks imported goods made wholly or in part in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region—home to ethnic Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities—unless the importing company can prove to U.S. Customs and Border Protection that the goods were not made with forced labor. The measure is meant to address China’s repression of the Uyghur people, which the U.S. government has labelled a genocide.

For Apple, the law’s requirements could bring some much-needed accountability. The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) and others have spent several years documenting how Apple’s supply chain is linked to forced labor from Xinjiang, but the company has consistently refused to acknowledge the problem and repeatedly issued the same blanket denials.

TTP spoke with Babur Ilchi, a program director at the Campaign for Uyghurs, for his perspective on this law and what it means for U.S. companies that operate in the Chinese labor market.

TTP: What do you and your organization think will be the impact of the law on companies that manufacture extensively in China, like Apple?

Ilchi: I think that this is a great first step in terms of a worldwide movement to stop Uyghur forced labor. The UFLPA is fairly comprehensive and strict. Especially what is critical is the rebuttable presumption that if you’re operating in the region, then you need to prove that you’re not using Uyghur forced labor or sourcing materials that are produced through Uyghur forced labor. I think that is really the only way to do this, as there’s no way to do audits or have any form of accountability when it comes to labor in the region or production in the region.

Companies have for years now—this is not a new issue, this has been happening since at least 2019—have been profiting off the backs of Uyghur forced laborers. It’s time to admit to that.

TTP: A lot of companies, including Apple, were reported to be lobbying against provisions of the UFLPA or trying to water it down, the argument being that existing due diligence efforts were sufficient to keep supply chains free of forced labor. What is the problem with that argument from your point of view?

Ilchi: Those companies were lobbying the UFLPA and have stated that the due diligence that they’ve done either through their internal audits or auditors was enough—except five major auditing firms have left the Uyghur region precisely because they’re unable to perform audits with any degree of certainty or accountability or transparency. The other thing to point out is that the Chinese government is conducting a genocide against Uyghurs and they are an extremely tight-fisted authoritarian regime that makes it very difficult for any sort of information to flow freely.

It seems almost laughable to me to think that some auditor can go into one of these factories that are run by a state enterprise and interview a Uyghur worker and get an answer that is reasonably free and not coerced by the Chinese government. It’s nonsensical to say that due diligence was working, because if they were working, you wouldn’t have Uyghur forced labor in your supply chain!

TTP: You said that you view the UFLPA as a pretty comprehensive law, but you also refer to it as a first step. What other steps are going to be necessary in order to substantively remove Uyghur forced labor from the supply chain?

Ilchi: Beyond the UFLPA, we’re looking at a more global perspective. … Canada, the European Union, Australia, and other countries need to follow suit and enact similar legislation. Otherwise what may happen—and this is something that’s going to be on companies as well—is the possible production of a two-tier supply chain, where non-Uyghur forced labor goods are sent to the States and the rest of it goes to every other country in the world.

That’s just completely unacceptable; it can’t be something that happens. There needs to be a single standard applied to supply chains by all companies, and that supply chain standard needs to follow the UFLPA.

TTP: What kind of concrete steps would you like to see companies take in the coming months and years in addition to what is required by the UFLPA?

Ilchi: I think this is something that’s going to be critical. Companies have been lobbying against the UFLPA and now the UFLPA is legislation that they must follow. It would suit them to adopt a single-standard supply chain that is compliant with the UFLPA because eventually, maybe sooner than everyone expects, Canada, the EU, Australia—they’re all considering these levels of customs and import bans for Uyghur forced labor. Once those pass, these companies are going to have to scramble yet again to create that single-standard supply chain.

They’ve had at least six months since the passage of the UFLPA and several years since Uyghur forced labor became a known issue to mainstream press and governments around the world. They’ve had more than enough time to shape up.

TTP: Last year, TTP released a report about Apple’s partnership with Goldwind, a wind turbine maker that has links to the repression of Uyghurs and works closely with Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), which has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department over human rights abuses. That partnership is related to Apple’s climate goals. Do you think these kinds of partnerships are acceptable?

Ilchi: There should be no dealings with Chinese state enterprises that have engaged in Uyghur forced labor or are operating in the Uyghur region, and more specifically here, companies that are partnered with the XPCC. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps are probably the largest supplier of Uyghur forced labor and they are essentially a paramilitary organization that has established massive control over production, resources, labor, and has been using that to benefit themselves and the Chinese government immensely.

These kinds of partnerships are unacceptable and completely unethical. … There is an element of complicity in continuing to financially support the profit incentive, the engine, of the Uyghur genocide.