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EU lawmakers, bolstered by UN report on Xinjiang, welcome forced labour ban

but vow to make it stronger

By Finbarr Bermingham

September 15, 2022

Men transport goods past a mural depicting Chinese leaders in Hotan, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, where Beijing has been accused of human rights abuses involving members of Muslim groups. Photo: AP

European lawmakers broadly welcomed the EU’s draft ban on forced labour on Wednesday, even as some said it fell well short of their expectations.

The new proposal, the details of which the Post reported last Saturday, seeks to ban all products made using forced labour from the single market.

“We are proposing a new system to eliminate products made with forced labour from the EU market, irrespective of where the product is made,” said EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis.

Nonetheless, parliamentarians touted what they saw as an answer to their calls to eradicate forced labour goods, particularly those made in the far western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where Beijing is accused of operating a widespread system of coercive labour.

“The European Parliament has laid out its demands and the commission is delivering, in many respects according to our wishes,” said Bernd Lange, the chair of the parliament’s trade committee. “This is a solid basis to build on.”

“The urgency to act was further confirmed by the recent UN report denouncing human rights abuses against the Uygur minority in the Xinjiang region of China,” read a statement from Lange’s Socialists and Democrats group.

The proposal differs significantly from the United States’ model, which has effectively banned the import of goods made in Xinjiang.

Unlike Washington, Brussels was concerned about breaching World Trade Organization rules, and over appearing to directly target Beijing.

Instead, the EU proposed a risk-based model that flags goods from regions or sectors suspected to involve such practices.

The concentration of allegations involving Xinjiang means products suspected to have any components from there will inevitably set alarm bells ringing, said an EU official involved in the drafting, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Once various levels of inspections have convinced authorities that a good is tainted by forced labour, it will be banned from sale across the EU, while pan-European customs authorities will be obliged to confiscate and destroy these products at the border.

Christophe Hansen, spokesperson for international trade at the centre-right European People’s Party, the parliament’s largest group, said the proposal showed that “we no longer tolerate inhumane behaviour”.

“No more products from prison camps, no more products made by forced labour from so-called re-education camps, no more slave labour,” Hansen said. “And yes, this may come at an initial cost to consumers, but the defence of our values comes at a price.”

“I especially welcome the fact that this instrument is WTO-compatible,” said Samira Rafaela, the forced labour negotiator from the centrist Renew Group, which said on Wednesday it was “shocked by the unspeakable treatment of Uygurs in China”.

Beijing has consistently denied allegations about human rights abuses in the region, with its foreign ministry saying “there has never been forced labour in Xinjiang”.

The Chinese mission to the EU did not respond to a request for comment.

Under the proposal, the EU’s 27 member states would be required to establish and fund “competent authorities” for catching goods suspected of using forced labour.

These goods could be singled out through submissions from external parties, like non-governmental organisations or other businesses from inside or outside Europe, or via a central EU public database that flags products and regions likely to have forced labour.

Lange and others raised concerns over the fact that the ban must be policed and enforced by 27 different authorities at a national level could leave it open to circumvention.

“The issue of circumvention is something we will have to explore further,” Lange said. “We will certainly have to look at the central role of EU member states in the proposal. I am not entirely convinced that the European level should not play a bigger role after all.”

Raphael Glucksmann, one of the parliament’s most hawkish voices on China and earlier an advocate for an all-out import ban, hailed the draft as “an important landmark and the result of years of civic mobilisation and political battles”.

“Two years ago, we were told that such an instrument was impossible,” the French socialist MEP said. “We will now have to make sure that the planned mechanism is as swift and efficient as possible.”

The buck now passes to the parliament and the European Council, staffed by diplomats and officials from member state governments, which will each negotiate their own draft law based on the proposal.

Then both parties will sit down to negotiate with the commission for a composite ban. At the conclusion of the negotiations – which some anticipate could be prickly – it will take two years to build the required systems, meaning it will be at least three years before a ban enters into force.

“In an ideal world, if member states take the forced labour issue seriously, then this could be an important tool,” said Noah Barkin, an EU-China analyst at Rhodium Group. “But that is a big if.”

“Even in a best-case scenario, enforcement of the ban will not begin for another three to four years,” Barkin added. “It is not a proposal that will make anyone in Beijing quake in their shoes.”

Meanwhile, Greens in the parliament indicated the draft did not come close to meeting their expectations, suggesting the commission had a fight on its hands.

“Unlike in the US, products are not confiscated if forced labour is suspected, but only after a long investigation,” said Anna Cavazzini, a Green member and another strong proponent of a full import ban.

Cavazzini voiced unease about the lack of compensation for victims of forced labour and the fact that the burden of proof rested with national authorities, rather than importers, unlike in the US.

“Now it’s time to get to work. In the negotiations I will do everything to improve the proposal so that we can effectively ban forced labour products from supermarket shelves,” she added.

Reinhard Buetikofer, the head of the parliament’s delegation to China and also a Green member, expressed disappointment as well.

“This is not what we wanted,” he said. “The proposal … falls short of the example which the US Congress established with the Uygur Forced Labour Prevention Act.”


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