When companies promise concrete action on human rights violations, Americans are less likely to support government intervention. This time, there’s a catch.
Analysis by Matthew Amengual and Tim Bartley
August 8, 2022
A masked woman attends a protest during the Chinese foreign minister's visit to Berlin in September 2020. (Markus Schreiber/AP)
This summer, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act took effect, restricting U.S. imports of products from the Xinjiang region of China, where a great deal of evidence reveals that the Chinese government has been imprisoning and otherwise persecuting the resident Uyghur ethnic minority. This law goes beyond previous attempts to address forced labor and what advocates call “modern slavery,” since it presumes that items linked to Xinjiang have been made with forced labor, unless importing companies can demonstrate otherwise.
Evidence shows that Uyghur Muslims are enduring wide-ranging repression from Chinese authorities, including forced migration and internment in what are called reeducation camps. Through both routes, Uyghur individuals have been coerced into producing cotton, tomatoes, electronic components and a variety of other materials destined for global markets, including polysilicon for solar panels.
Coming amid geopolitical conflicts, rising consumer prices, component shortages and a reconfiguration of global supply chains, the law’s consequences could be profound. Unlike many trade restrictions, this one is rooted not only in national rivalries but also in moral objections to human rights violations and repression of an ethno-religious minority, which the United States has called genocidal.
Our recently published research examines how Americans perceive bans of this sort — and reveals how corporate strategies to manage the risks of forced labor and maintain access to Chinese markets could, this time, have unanticipated consequences.
How we did our research
In the winter of 2020, we conducted an online survey experiment with a sample of approximately 4,500 U.S. residents. This was a national sample of adults, recruited from the survey firm Dynata’s opt-in panel with quotas used to approximate key characteristics of the U.S. population, including region, age, gender, income and education.
We had respondents read hypothetical scenarios — randomly assigned — that described different kinds of labor and environmental problems in global supply chains for clothing, electronics and seafood. These included forced labor, child labor, dangerous work, water pollution and toxic emissions. These scenarios also included hypothetical statements from corporations, which took a variety of approaches to voluntarily addressing these problems.
We then asked respondents whether and to what extent they supported a government-imposed ban on the sale of these items in the United States — in essence, the same action taken by this recent law.
[Why do some Muslim-majority countries support China's crackdown on Muslims?]
Respondents were highly supportive of import bans for goods made by forced labor
Of all these social and environmental issues, respondents were especially likely to support import bans for products made with forced labor, which advocates call “modern slavery.” For instance, they were 19 percentage points more likely to support an import ban for products made with forced labor than those that involved “overuse of natural resources.” Only child labor, which has received focused attention from activists and policymakers for decades, got more interest in a ban — and that difference was negligible when we asked how strongly respondents supported a ban.
We also asked people to explain their judgments in their own words. They often used explicitly moral language to justify government intervention against forced labor. For example, one respondent called slave labor the “ultimate sin of a company.” Another wrote, “We must do everything possible to eliminate slavery around the world. This is so abhorrent — there is NO justification ever for slavery.” While child labor also elicited morally infused language, other problems — from dangerous work to water pollution — rarely did. Respondents seldom mentioned worries about protecting American jobs, although that’s often mentioned in public debates about international trade.
This suggests that the current politics of regulating certain harms in global supply chains, including forced labor, may be distinctive. They are animated not only by nationalism and overarching views of globalization’s economic effects, as emphasized in prior research, but also by explicitly moral concerns.
Corporate promises of reform can undermine support for import bans
Of course, not everyone agreed that import bans are called for. Not surprisingly, conservatives were generally less likely to support this type of state intervention, although more of them were willing to support bans for forced labor than for most other problems.
When our descriptions included corporate statements promising to voluntarily address the problem, fewer people supported government-imposed bans. For example, when companies promised to set rules for their suppliers and audit compliance, people became six percentage points less likely to say that an import ban was needed.
That effect was apparent across the political-ideological spectrum. Even respondents who identified politically as on the left and those who generally believe that government regulation is good were less likely to support government-imposed bans when companies promised to take concrete action voluntarily.
What does that mean for the Xinjiang import ban?
Over the past two decades, companies have become increasingly active in policing their supply chains to address issues ranging from dangerous workplaces to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. And they proudly communicate these actions to consumers, shareholders and legislators.
When dealing with Xinjiang, however, companies have been much more circumspect about making such claims. This seems to be partly due to the practical difficulties of assessing conditions in Xinjiang and partly because the Chinese government aggressively denies that Uyghurs are being mistreated. When corporations have issued public statements about avoiding Xinjiang forced labor, Chinese consumers have responded by boycotting their products, likely encouraged by the Chinese government.
[China's backlash against Western brands may be short-lived]
Our findings suggest that companies’ silence could inadvertently increase American support for government import bans on Xinjiang-made goods. In our study, when companies either had no comment or made general claims about ethics, charity and community, respondents were more likely to support government bans. As the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act begins to be enforced, companies may find it harder than expected to convince consumers that their hands are clean.
Matthew Amengual (@amengualmatt) is associate professor in international business at the Said Business School, University of Oxford, and author of “Politicized Enforcement in Argentina" (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Tim Bartley (@timbartley99) is professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “Rules Without Rights: Land, Labor, and Private Authority in the Global Economy” (Oxford University Press, 2018).