As It Happens·Q&A

U.S. congresswoman calls out Nike, Apple and Coca-Cola for lobbying against Uighur labour bills

U.S. Democratic congresswoman Jennifer Wexton says the onus should be on companies to prove their products weren't made using forced labour. 

Jennifer Wexton says companies are publicly condemning forced labour and privately trying to water down bills

Virginia Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton is pushing two bills that aim to crack down on companies that benefit from the forced labour of Uighur Muslims in China. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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U.S. Democratic congresswoman Jennifer Wexton says the onus should be on companies to prove their products weren't made using forced labour. 

That's why she co-sponsored the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and authored the Uyghur Forced Labor Disclosure Act, which aim to crack down on companies that profit off the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China.

The UN estimates there are at least one million Uighurs in mass detention camps in the country's Xinjiang region, where they are forced into labour and so-called re-education programs. 

The Prevention Act would ban the use of products tied to the forced labour of Uighurs, while the Disclosure Act would force companies to report their ties to the Xinjiang region to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Both bills have passed through U.S. House of Representatives with bipartisan support and are now in the Senate.

But some of the companies whose supply chains have ties to Xinjiang — including Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola — are paying big money to lobbying firms to water down the bill, according to the New York Times.

Coca-Cola told the Times it "strictly prohibits any type of forced labour" in its supply chain. Nike said it wasn't lobbying against the bill, but rather having "constructive discussions" with congressional staff about how to eliminate forced labour. 

Apple also denied trying to weaken the bill, stating that "looking for the presence of forced labour is part of every supplier assessment we conduct and any violations of our policies carry immediate consequences, including business termination." 

But Wexton says if these companies truly had nothing to hide, they would leave the bills alone. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Just remind people what's going on in Xinjiang.

Well, the Chinese government has been rounding up Uighur Muslims for years and putting them in camps and forcing them to work in factories, not just in Xinjiang but in other parts of China as well, solely for the crime of being Uighur. And it's horrifying and it needs to stop.

There is evidence that they are being used in labour camps or in labour situations to manufacture, isn't [there]?

Yes. And in fact, the Chinese Communist Party is building more and more of these camps and accelerating the use of them.

Workers walk by the perimeter fence last year of what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang — a Uighur detention camp. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The companies principally who are lobbying ... to have changes to your bills, are Apple, Nike, Coca-Cola [and] the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What are they trying to do? What changes do they want to make to your laws? 

Well, I don't know, because they haven't come to me to try to make changes to my piece of legislation, but the word is that they're trying to water down some of the enforcement provisions while publicly proclaiming that they are very much against and condemning forced labour. They're going behind the scenes and trying to change the law.

If they're against it, if they say that this is not in their interest, then why would they want to change your bills?

Because it's going to impact their supply chains and make it harder for them to profit off of this forced labour. 

Which means that they're using the forced labour? 

If they're not using it, it wouldn't be a problem. But, you know, it appears that they are using it. And if they are auditing their supply chains the way they're supposed to, this legislation wouldn't be an issue. 

Is it also the case, though, that they just want more time ... to implement it, to change their supply chains in order to accommodate this?

If they wanted more time, they can come to us and see about getting an extension of time to implement these rules and regulation. But, you know, as I said, they haven't approached me about it. 

How powerful are the lobbyists for these companies?

They're quite powerful. 

I'm not particularly optimistic, but I know that we have a new administration coming in, in January. And I know that the incoming [Joe] Biden administration takes human rights very seriously. 

People protest at a Uighur rally in February in front of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

But we do know that the New York Times is reporting that there are millions of dollars being spent on the lobbying of Congress in order to alter these bills. 

Yes, and that means that there's a lot of money at stake for their profits... But, you know, it's hypocritical for them to, on the one hand, proclaim publicly that they are against the use of forced labour and then to profit from it and go behind the scenes to try to change this legislation.

Coca-Cola told, in the statements to the New York Times, that they strictly prohibit the use of forced labour, that they have independent third-party audits to make sure that they have no forced labour in their supply chains. Nike says its suppliers are not using material from the Xinjiang region or from people from Xinjiang. And Apple says it has conducted an investigation of its suppliers in China and says they found no evidence of forced labour.

What do you make of that?

The Forced Labor Prevention Act would create a rebuttable presumption that any products coming from that region were produced with forced labour. So if, in fact, their auditing firms and the auditing processes have shown that it's not, then they would have nothing to fear from this legislation.

Is it incumbent on the companies to prove that their supply chains do not include forced labour, or does the law have to come up with the evidence?

I believe that it should be incumbent on the companies to provide this evidence and to prove that it's not.

But, you know, if they aren't able to make those assertions and prove that affirmatively, then my legislation would just require that they make disclosures as a part of their [Securities and Exchange Commission] filing so that investors and consumers are aware that the goods that they purchase from these companies could be tainted by forced or slave labour.

There's a Supreme Court case right now in Washington [in which] chocolate companies are claiming that it's not their fault if their suppliers are using child labour. That's a story we just did last night.

Is it possible that companies just have no way of knowing what's in their supply chains?

I think that companies have an affirmative duty to to ensure that their supply chains are not tainted with slave labour, and there are companies that ensure that they're not, and that [they] use fair practices and fair trade.

And if these companies don't want to do that, they should just have to disclose it.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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