A long-awaited UN report has concluded that forced labour and other serious human rights abuses are taking place in Xinjiang, adding further weight to calls for the EU to introduce stricter due diligence legislation for companies with Chinese supply chains.

A report published this month by the UN High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) details various abuses against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities by the Chinese state in Xinjiang since at least 2017.

It documents patterns of torture and sexual violence in so-called re-education facilities, as well as use of forced labour, and says that China’s acts may “constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.

The findings are strengthening calls for stronger due diligence reforms in the EU, which as of yet, has failed to restrict domestic companies from importing goods produced wholly or in part in Xinjiang – as the US has done.

In response to the UN report, the German government urges Beijing to “fully respect” the human rights of everyone in Xinjiang with immediate effect. “All persons detained arbitrarily must be released without delay.”

“There must be no forced labour,” it adds. “That is why, at national level, we have created the [German] Supply Chain Due Diligence Act and are advocating that further instruments be put in place at EU level in order to combat forced labour in supply chains.”

Following public consultations and expert studies, the European Commission issued a proposal to draft fresh legislation around corporate sustainability due diligence in February this year.

That proposal is still under review by the European Council, and no draft text has yet been produced. Law firm Bird & Bird suggested in a July briefing that proposed legislation is unlikely to appear before September this year.

Separately, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the “human rights situation in Xinjiang” in June, calling for a trade instrument that would ban imports of all products made by forced labour.


Bifurcated supply chains

As Brussels deliberates over forced labour due diligence legislation, the US has already started enforcement of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), which was approved by Congress last year and entered into force in June.

“We are two months in and there has been significant enforcement of the law,” says Richard Mojica, a member and practice lead for customs and import trade at law firm Miller & Chevalier. “So far, we’ve seen it around only two industries which are at the centre of the kind of enforcement attention currently: that’s solar and apparel.”

He says there have been “a lot of detentions” across both sectors, largely targeting cotton rich products and solar panels. “We expect that those detentions will continue, and that soon there will be an expansion in terms of the scope and types of products being detained.”

Mojica says he is unsure which sectors could be targeted next, but research published by US-based consultancy Horizon Advisory in April claims that aluminium is potentially at risk of being linked to forced labour in Xinjiang.

As politicians on Capitol Hill work to clamp down on Xinjiang-related imports, experts fear that a lack of similar action in Europe means sellers of tainted goods are finding ready and willing buyers elsewhere.

Sheffield Hallam University, which has conducted extensive research into forced labour in Xinjiang, says an EU import ban on products made with forced labour is “urgently needed”, and should include a provision for regional bans in cases of state-sponsored forced labour.

“Refusing the opportunity to ban the import of [forced labour] goods is tantamount to making those imports legal. It is imperative that legislators act now or risk encouraging the import of forced-labour-made goods,” it said in a call for feedback from the European Commission in May.

The university warns that supply chains are being “bifurcated” to respond to US legislation. “Currently, forced-labour-free supply chains exist for products bound for the US, while forced-labour-made goods are shipped to the EU,” it said.