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Senators introduce bipartisan bill targeting forced labor in supply chain

The bill was introduced as China, host of the 2022 Winter Games, faces allegations it uses forced labor in the Xinjiang region.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a R-Mo., speaks to members of the media while arriving to a closed-door briefing on Afghanistan at the U.S. Capitol  on Feb. 2, 2022.
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks to members of the media at a closed-door briefing on Afghanistan at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 2.Eric Lee / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced a bill this week that would require large corporations to undergo audits to ensure they are not using forced labor in their supply chains — and assess penalties on those that don't comply.

The senators introduced legislation Monday titled the Slave-Free Business Certification Act as China faces increased scrutiny during the Winter Olympics, held in Beijing, over allegations of forced labor and concentration camps in its Xinjiang region. The bill doesn't specifically refer to China.

"Global slavery will not end without leadership from the United States," Hawley said in a statement. "Now is the time to step up and tackle one of the most pressing issues of our time. This bipartisan bill will force the biggest corporations in the world to end their complicity in this moral atrocity and work to finally make American supply chains slave-free."

The measure, a version of which Hawley introduced in 2020 but wasn't voted on, would apply to companies that have at least $500 million in annual revenue and deal in mining, manufacturing and the production of goods like clothes and cellphones.

Gillibrand said in a statement, "This bill is an important step towards ending the use of forced labor by holding businesses accountable for the workers used throughout their supply chains.”

The Xinjiang region is a large provider of raw materials like cotton and sugar, which flow to factories elsewhere in China that produce global goods.

The bipartisan bill would require large corporations to undergo regular audits to ensure forced labor doesn't play a role in their supply chains. The audits would be submitted to the Labor Department and made publicly available. The Labor Department would then report any companies that aren't in compliance to Congress.

The legislation would also mandate that CEOs certify that their supply chains are free of slave labor or that all instances have been reported. It would penalize companies that evade the audits or fail certification.

Late last year, President Joe Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which aims to ensure that U.S. companies aren't funding forced labor in the Xinjiang region, where the Uyghur minority population is centered. It was backed overwhelmingly in Congress.

Although U.S. law already made it illegal to knowingly import goods made with slave labor, the measure Biden signed requires companies to prove their factories and suppliers don't benefit from forced labor.

China has denied all accusations of abuse in Xinjiang, saying the camps for minorities provide vocational training and that they are needed to fight extremism.

In a statement in December, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry said the measure Biden signed "maliciously denigrates the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang in disregard of facts and truth."

The same month, a public tribunal set up by a prominent British human rights lawyer concluded that the Chinese government committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs.