Supply Chains of Slavery

By Samantha Bader

What do Nike, Coca-Cola, and Apple have in common? No, it’s not that they’re all hugely successful American corporations – it’s that they all want to continue profiting off of slave labour by any means necessary. 

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, a bill that passed Congress in September by a margin of 406-3 was aggressively lobbied against by all three companies, according to disclosure documents obtained by the New York Times. The bill sought to ban American companies from being able to import a variety of goods from the Xinjiang region in China unless companies could prove without a doubt that these goods were not made using slave labour. 

The Xinjiang region of China is widely considered to be one of the locations in China where Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups have been placed in camps by the Chinese government. Human rights organizations have documented that over the past few years, over one million Muslims in China have been surveilled and placed in these internment camps. The imagery of the camps has brought up comparisons to the horrifying Nazi concentration camps during World War Two, and the people in these camps face torture, sexual abuse, and forced labor for little or no pay. The Chinese government denies that these internment camps exist, but that claim has been credibly refuted by outside intelligence agencies. 

A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that was released in March of this year had evidence of forced Uyghur labour being used at four separate factories belonging to Apple’s supply chain and in supply chains belonging to Nike, BMW, and Amazon. 

This bill, if passed by the Senate and signed into law by either the outgoing Trump Administration or the incoming Biden administration would likely wreak havoc on the existing supply chains of these companies. Key raw materials like cotton, coal, sugar, tomatoes, and polysilicon come from the Xinjiang region, and the region also supplies workers for China’s many manufacturing factories. For American companies, fully investigating and eliminating any potential ties to forced labor there has been difficult, as the Chinese supply chains are hardly transparent and the Chinese government limits access of auditors to the region.

Companies will also likely find it difficult to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their Chinese products were made without usage of this forced labour. Richard A. Mojica, a lawyer at Miller & Chevalier, said “Rebutting a presumption of forced labor is going to be a very challenging endeavor,” that could “take months”. 

For all these reasons, Apple, Nike, and Coca Cola reportedly paid lobbying firms huge sums to attempt to either block or modify the bill. Apple paid conservative lobbying firm Fierce Government Relations $90,000 to lobby on issues including Xinjiang-related legislation in the third quarter and Nike spent a whopping $920,000 on in-house lobbying of Congress and other federal agencies during the first three quarters of 2020. 

The report released by the Times has been strongly refuted by Nike and Coca-Cola, whereas Apple has thus far not commented on the report’s veracity. The global communications director for Nike, Greg Rossiter, was quoted in The Times as saying that the company “did not lobby against” the bill, but admitted that they did have “constructive discussions” with congressional staffers.

Coca-Cola said in a statement that their company “strictly prohibits any type of forced labor in our supply chain.”

Needless to say, this is not a good look for any of these companies. All three companies have long been plagued by allegations of profiting from cheap labour in other countries, and Nike has faced child labour scandals in the past. Unfortunately for Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola, this bill has widespread bipartisan support in the US Senate and looks likely to pass and be ratified into law. As a result, perhaps these companies will look elsewhere for their cheap labour – or perhaps they will finally begin to implement higher working standards in their factories. 

Photo by Marco Bianchetti, Unsplash

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