Chinese companies are using forced labor to created hundreds of thousands of units of protective medical face masks and shipping them all around the world, including to the United States, a New York Times investigation has found.
The NYT released a video detailing the results of its months-long investigation into medical supply chains for face masks on Sunday. The investigation added to a mounting body of evidence against Chinese Communist Party that China’s government is systemically oppressing ethnic minorities in the country’s Xinjiang region. The investigation also found that companies around the world, including in the U.S., are benefitting from that oppression.
Since 2017, an estimated 3 million people per year have been placed into a forced labor program run by the Chinese government. It is unknown how the outbreak of the coronavirus, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has impacted the overall number of workers in the program, but the pandemic has caused a global surge in demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks and gloves.
Early on, China rushed to fill that demand by sending millions of units of largely defective PPE to countries in Europe struggling to contain the virus. China has adapted dozens of manufacturing facilities to producing medical supplies.
Before the pandemic, just four companies located in Xinjiang produced medical face masks. That number has risen to 51 since the outbreak. At least 17 of those companies are using forced labor from Uighurs, a majority-Muslim minority in Xinjiang, to produce PPE, according to NYT.
“Any company that is procuring masks or other personal protective equipment that wants to avoid forced labor content in those products should not be sourcing them from Xinjiang,” Workers Rights Consortium Executive Director Scott Nova told NYT.
Just staying away from manufacturers in the Xinjiang region may not be enough to avoid products made by forced labor, however. The NYT sourced shipments of masks being sold by medical supply companies in the United States to Chinese companies participating in the labor transfer, some located far outside the Xinjiang.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) is planning to introduce legislation that would require companies doing business in the U.S. to confirm that their supply chains are free of forced labor. The senator said he is especially concerned with companies that are sourcing goods from China.
“If these reports from anti-trafficking advocates, anti-slavery advocates are wrong, then the companies will have a chance to set the record straight,” Hawley told Axios. “But they will be held accountable.”
Hawley’s bill would punish companies in violation with hefty fines as high as half a billion dollars.
“The [Labor secretary] may assess civil damages of not more than $100 million to any corporation that fails the comply with the act, plus punitive damages of not more than $500 million,” the proposal says, according to Axios. “[T]he secretary may request the Attorney General institute an injunction, restraining order, or other appropriate order in the district court for any corporation whose violations of the act constitute a hazard to its workers.”
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