Iconic companies are reportedly using slave labor in their Chinese factories, in a horrific violation of human rights — making a mockery of their carefully crafted images as socially conscious.
U.S. and foreign-based companies including Apple, Microsoft, Nike, Adidas, Samsung, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, BMW, General Motors, Jaguar and Mercedes are among 83 multinational companies that are linked to Uighur slave labor in Chinese factories. The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group.
Instead of bending over backward to rectify allegations of troubling connections to human rights abuses, major American corporations have chosen to spend small fortunes lobbying to weaken the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in a blatant example of morally corrupt behavior.
That bipartisan legislation passed the House of Representatives in September by a vote of 406 to 3, but awaits action in the Republican-controlled Senate.
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The major display of bipartisanship was for good reason: The bill prohibits the importation into the U.S. of goods that are manufactured in these forced-labor factories and puts the onus on the American companies to report if their supply chains have ties to the region where the Uighurs are being held in detention camps.
Over 1.5 million Uighurs — the victims of ethnic cleansing in China — have been forced into detention camps, enslaved, beaten and forced to work for companies conducting business in China.
Chinese officials have reportedly used forms of torture such as waterboarding, rape, sleep deprivation, and mass sterilization of women and girls as part of the so-called "re-education" process the Uighurs are forced to undergo.
You would think that major American companies committed to justice would be eager to disassociate their products with any labor or materials even potentially tied to these atrocities.
Yet Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., recently told an interviewer about the effort of these major brands to combat the bill: "The word is that they're trying to water down some of the enforcement provisions while publicly proclaiming that they are very much against and condemning forced labor," she said.
Wexton added that if companies aren’t using forced labor they should have no problem with legislation banning such labor.
In truth, these supposedly socially conscious companies are worried that it would be difficult to ensure that their supply chains don’t use forced labor of the Uighur people.
Asked about the use of Uighur workers at its factory in China, Nike said that "we respect human rights in our extended value chain, and always strive to conduct business ethically and responsibly," The Washington Post reported early this year.
Well, if that’s true, then why are the companies lobbying against legislation designed to prevent forced labor?
Given the sensitivity to their brand reputations, these companies have deployed their public relations folks to try and spin the situation to their benefit. Nike insisted to The New York Times that it "did not lobby" against the bill. Instead it labeled is efforts as "constructive discussions" with congressional staff aides "aimed at eliminating forced labor and protecting human rights."
Can you imagine how those carefully crafted sentiments would be received by an enslaved Uighur who is beaten and tortured into manufacturing products with no hope, no escape?
If you are reading this on your iPhone, (I’m writing this op-ed on a Mac Laptop), sipping an ice-cold Coke, or wearing your Nike shoes, you are potentially an unwitting consumer of slave labor.
I use some of these products myself. It’s an uncomfortable reality. This is why the bill is important and the Senate should not cave to pressure from corporate America lobbying to dilute legislation aimed at cracking down on slave labor.
We need to ensure that the lobbying methods of these major American corporations do not succeed, and that these companies are put under intense scrutiny for any involvement with what is clearly an ethnic cleansing and what President-elect Joe Biden has called "a genocide."
The legislation passed by the House is an important first step into correcting a terrible injustice and putting pressure on the Chinese Communist Party, where it will do the most good.
China is very far away, and many Americans have heard little or nothing about the Uighurs. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the terrible oppression of innocent people and wash our hands of any moral responsibility for supporting their oppression with the dollars we spend on our purchases.
It is past time to hold American corporations accountable for immoral exploitation and human rights violations against their workers — not just in the U.S. but in their foreign facilities as well.
Enacting the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law would be a good first step.