Human rights organizations have documented the open sale of Uyghur people as slaves on the Chinese internet and implicated hundreds of global brands in the purchase of goods tainted with slave labor from East Turkistan. As cotton is one of East Turkistan’s top exports, the fashion industry is particularly lucrative for China’s Uyghur slave industry.
Following its implementation, the Chinese government branded the UFLPA “evil” and claimed it had caused a chilling effect on regional trade.
Syam’s testimony on Chinese direct-to-consumer fashion companies echoed concerns raised in a report published by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a Congressional body that describes its mission as to “monitor, investigate, and submit to Congress an annual report on the national security implications of the bilateral trade and economic relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.”
The report in question focused mostly on Shein, currently China’s most lucrative “fast fashion” enterprise in America.
Like Syam, author Nicholas Kaufman noted Bloomberg’s reporting unveiling the presence of Xinjiang cotton in Shein clothing as a sign that the company, “and perhaps other Chinese fast fashion firms appear to be sourcing goods in violation of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.”
“The investigation by Bloomberg News tracing cotton fibers to Xinjiang highlights not only the platform’s likely violation of U.S. law but also that the U.S. government does not have tools to effectively screen most e-commerce shipments from China,” Kaufman wrote. “Packages that enter the United States, including the millions that enter below the de minimis threshold [worth less than $800], are frequently not inspected.”
“Those that are inspected are often subject to rudimentary visual checks without the technology or screening to trace fabric origin and other violations,” the report continued. “Without the proper staffing and technological tools, U.S. customs officials are poorly positioned to identify and cease low-cost shipments that violate U.S. laws and regulations.”
The commission report noted that the average Shein package falls far under the $800 de minimis limit, worth only about $11. Their low value not only appears to allow the packages to avoid UFLPA inspection, the report continued, but it also “means Shein is exempt from the standard 16.5 percent import duty and 7.5 percent tariff specific to China.”
According to CECC Chairman Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), CBP has seized over $961 million worth of goods since the UFLPA went into effect. The witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing agreed that the law was having significant effects on global trade despite several glaring shortcomings.
“It is critical to note that while we still have a long way to go before we intercept all products made in whole or in part in the Uyghur Region, the UFLPA is indeed working as it was intended,” Professor Laura Murphy of Sheffield Hallam University told the CECC. “In the short nine months that the UFLPA has been in effect, we have seen a swift and decisive enforcement response. Customs and Border Protection has indicated that it has refused at least 424 shipments entry into the United States after investigating their links to Uyghur forced labor.”
Murphy, like Syam, identified several challenges regarding the implementation, including companies operating in China moving around goods to obfuscate supply chains, changing subsidiary names to avoid reputational damage if caught trading in slave goods, and even the problem of companies actively trying to abide by the law refusing to say so “out of fear of retaliation in China.”