Is Canada becoming a dumping ground for goods made with Uyghur forced labour? Here’s why some are raising the alarm
Ottawa’s inaction on the importation of items thought to be made through forced labour in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is a growing concern in the United States, say advocates there and in Canada.
This week, during a committee hearing in Washington, D.C., witnesses said there is concern Canada has only seized one shipment of such goods and that this country risks becoming a dumping ground for items denied entry into the U.S.
“Canada’s inaction seems to be getting some attention in the U.S. Capitol,” Mehmet Tohti of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project said. “There is also growing concern the U.S. cannot do it alone unless the neighbouring countries like Mexico and Canada take the necessary action.”
Tohti said there are also fears shipments of goods denied entry to the U.S. over concerns they were made from Uyghur forced labour are being bounced across the border to Canada, where they are then sent back to the states and getting through customs.
The rights of Uyghur and other Turkic minorities in China have been under scrutiny in recent years. China has conducted a campaign of massive surveillance and incarceration of the mostly Muslim population of the region.
Part of it has included sending what is estimated to be more than 1 million people to internment camps. The government insists they were vocational training centres.
Allegations of forced labour, physical and sexual abuse have been made by those who have spent time in the camps, including to a Canadian parliamentary subcommittee. In 2021 Canada’s Parliament, with cabinet abstaining from the vote, declared the actions a genocide with a non-binding motion.
Concerns about inaction on the part of Ottawa came up during a hearing in Washington earlier this week on the implementation of the country’s Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act (UFLPA).
The law, passed by the U.S. Senate in December 2021, prohibits goods made in the Xinjiang region from being imported to the United States. The hearings, through the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, are examining how the legislation has worked so far and how to apply it in future.
During the hearing Tuesday, Anasuya Syam of the Human Trafficking Legal Centre in Washington raised concerns Canada is “seriously lagging behind” on enforcement. Canada amended its customs tariff in 2020 to target forced labour but has seized only one shipment, which was later released.
“We are concerned by the slow implementation from our neighbour,” Syam said. “Mexico, on the other hand, did announce its import ban in February 2023 and will begin implementing it in May.”
By contrast the U.S. has denied 490 shipments under the UFLPA, according to the country’s Customs and Border Protection dashboard.
Syam called for all three countries to take a regionwide approach to the forced labour issue, pointing out under the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA) all three countries are obligated to track cross border movement of goods made using forced labour.
Trade ministers from the three nations need to get together to discuss the issue, Syam said, as it is currently not clear if the three countries have a strategy to stop such shipments.
Concern over goods made from forced Uyghur Labour has hung over Canada’s border enforcement efforts.
A 2021 investigation by the Toronto Star and Guelph Mercury Tribune found hundreds of shipping containers full of goods on a U.S. list of suspected Chinese companies using forced labour had come into Canada, including 500 tonnes of clothing.
Media relations manager Guillaume Bérubé said in an email the Canadian government is “committed” to eradicating forced labour from the country’s supply chains through working with partners. But Bérubé also pointed out the responsibility also rests with companies.
“The Government of Canada expects companies to take every step possible to ensure that their supply chains conform to Canadian law,” Bérubé wrote. “It is the responsibility of the importer to exercise due diligence to ensure forced labour is not directly or indirectly used in the production of the goods it imports.”
Tohti said, despite the claims, there is little movement on preventing such goods from getting through Canada’s customs.
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