US moves to support Australian push to tackle China’s ‘human and labour rights abuses’ | Australia news

The Biden administration says it will talk with the Morrison government about tackling China’s “human and labour rights abuses”, as the United States offered qualified support for a new Australian bill to ban imports from the Xinjiang region.

The signal from Washington comes as an anti-slavery group argues Australia’s existing laws against modern slavery are not strong enough to address “state-sanctioned forced labour in Xinjiang province”.

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An analysis of modern slavery disclosure statements required under the existing laws shows just three Australian companies have outlined specific action to deal with risks in clothing sourced from Xinjiang, according to the group Be Slavery Free.

The bill, proposed by the South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick, would prohibit the importation into Australia of goods from Xinjiang province “as well as goods from other parts of China that are produced by using forced labour”.

The sweeping nature of the proposed Xinjiang ban goes beyond actions announced by the US and other western countries to date.

In a submission to a Senate inquiry into Patrick’s proposed legislation, the US state department backed the overall aims: “We support the goals of the draft bill.”

The submission – sent about two weeks after Joe Biden took office – pointed to Washington’s own recent steps to restrict imports, including a Trump administration-issued customs order requiring the detention of all cotton and tomato products originating from Xinjiang.

“We look forward to working with Australia to ensure global trade in cotton and other products produced without the use of forced labor proceeds unhindered,” Sung Kim, an acting assistant secretary of state, said in a letter dated 5 February.

“Communication and coordination on these trade issues should continue as we advance our shared goals of addressing human and labor rights abuses.”

The Australian government said last month it was “closely monitoring” the actions other countries were taking, as the United Kingdom and Canada also rolled out new actions targeting imports from Xinjiang.

And earlier this month, China’s foreign ministry criticised what it called “interference in China’s internal affairs” after the Australian government called for a senior United Nations official to be given immediate, unfettered access to investigate human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.

Beijing maintains there is “nothing underhand” happening in Xinjiang.

Patrick said while the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, had raised concerns in public about the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the Australian government “has to do something more than just talking”.

“Australia has made noises about what is happening in Xinjiang but hasn’t committed to any action,” Patrick said. “There is a multinational tide building. That’s evidenced in the submission that has been made [by the US state department].”

The Senate’s foreign affairs, defence and trade legislation committee is not due to complete its inquiry into Patrick’s bill until May. Patrick hopes to bring on a vote on the bill in August – but he hopes the government acts in the meantime.

It is unclear at this stage whether the major parties will support the bill and therefore whether it has the numbers to pass.

Rex Patrick
Senator Rex Patrick says while the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, had raised concerns in public about the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, the Australian government ‘has to do something more than just talking’. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

“At the very least, my bill has focused attention on the issue,” Patrick said.

The anti-slavery group Be Slavery Free has told the Senate inquiry that the Australian Modern Slavery Act that passed the parliament in 2018 “is not sufficient to address issues such as state-sanction forced labour and human trafficking”.

Australia’s law requires Australia’s biggest companies – those with annual revenue of more than $100m – to submit annual statements on the steps they are taking to address modern slavery in their supply chains and operations.

Of the more than 700 entities that have so far published modern slavery disclosure statements, 25 list their industry sector as including ‘fashion, textiles, apparel and luxury goods’, Be Slavery Free says.

The group says seven companies have identified risks in sourcing from China but do not mention Xinjiang as a specific risk.

It praises just three entities – Woolworths, Kathmandu and PVH Brands Limited – for identifying specific Xinjiang risks and outlining actions taken in response.

Woolworths said in its statement: “In response to allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang province in China, we have commenced tracing our garment supply chain in that region. We have no direct suppliers producing goods in Xinjiang and are conducting further due diligence on cotton sourced as a raw material.”

Kathmandu said: “A further risk of forced labour stems from the internment of over one million Chinese citizens of ethnic Turkic origin in the Xinjiang region as well as forced labour by prisoners incarcerated in China’s regular judicial system. This risk is therefore potentially present at all levels of the supply chain, from the farm level (for cotton and other agriculture products) to the manufacture of finished goods.”

Be Slavery Free noted that PVH Brands – whose portfolio includes Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Heritage Brands – had made a modern slavery statement to the effect that it had withdrawn from the area: “In 2019 Xinjiang Province was added to our restricted Jurisdiction.”

Be Slavery Free said its analysis indicated the Modern Slavery Act was “insufficient to address such issues as the imminent genocide of Uyghur and other minorities in the Xinjiang region”.

It said while China “is not the only place in the world where state-sanctioned forced labour is taking place, it is our only major trading partner engaged in such human rights violations”.

The new US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, last month backed predecessor Mike Pompeo’s declaration that China has committed genocide against Uighurs in the Xinjiang region.

China’s state councillor, Wang Yi, used a speech in Beijing on Monday to call on the US to “stop undermining China’s sovereignty and security on internal affairs concerning Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet”.