American consumers may not realize it but if they've purchased an item manufactured in one region of northwest China there's a good chance at least part of it was the product of forced labor.
“It’s supposed to be illegal for us to be able utilize products that are the result of slave labor and yet the Chinese government has cleverly found ways around it,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a democrat representing Massachusetts in the House of Representatives.
The region in question is home to China’s Uyghur community, a largely Muslim ethnic minority group, targeted by China’s government.
As many as a million Uyghurs have reportedly been detained in state-run prisons and camps.
“Uyghur Muslims have been persecuted by the Chinese government for years and in fact international human rights organizations have said that China is guilty of a genocide against the Uyghur people," said McGovern.
McGovern, who is co-chairman of the Congressional Executive Commission on China, which monitors human rights in the country, is the lead sponsor of legislation that passed the House on Tuesday to address the problem.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act would, for the first time, make U.S. companies responsible for ensuring that any products imported from the Xinjiang region, where the Uyghurs live, was not made with forced labor.
“If you’re going to do business in this one region, the Xinjiang region of China, that's where these internment camps are, you have to assume that the products you’re purchasing are being produced by slave labor and if you want to continue to purchase them you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that in fact that’s not the case," McGovern said.
At a time when bi-partisanship in Washington is elusive, the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act was approved by the House in a near unanimous vote of 428 to 1.
“Nothing is more chilling than what the Chinese are doing to the Uyghur people," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat representing Oregon in the House.
“The Chinese Communist party does anything it can to get ahead of the United States Mr. Speaker. It steals out intellectual property and uses Uyghur slave labor to manufacture products,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, a republican representing Tennessee in the House.
The measure now moves onto the Senate where McGovern expects it will pass with ease.
The Congressman said that he’s optimistic the legislation will make it onto President Joe Biden’s desk by the end of the year.