For the last several years, China’s Xinjiang region has been home to one of the world’s most horrifying ongoing human rights abuses. More than a million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other largely Muslim minorities have been forcibly detained in re-education camps, where laborers are forced to work under slave-like conditions to produce goods that major American companies, such as Nike, Apple, and Gap, reportedly rely on in their supply chains. Disney’s new live-action remake of Mulan, too, has run into trouble in part because scenes were filmed in Xinjiang with the cooperation of the Chinese government.
The abuses in Xinjiang highlight how global capitalists are willing to look the other way on human rights violations when they translate to reliable access to cheap labor and resources.
The abuses in Xinjiang, in many ways, highlight how global capitalists are willing to look the other way on human rights violations when they translate to reliable access to cheap labor and resources.
And while there have been many suggestions on how to hold multinational companies accountable for profiting off of the repression in Xinjiang, many of them have relied on voluntary corporate promises or codes of conduct. But there’s one new legal avenue, which takes aim at companies that rely on coerced labor, that seems to be making headway.
On August 28, the Corporate Accountability Lab (CAL), a Chicago-based legal nonprofit, filed a petition with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in conjunction with the AFL-CIO, World Uighur Congress, and other groups to stop goods from entering via Xinjiang, by using an obscure portion of the 1930 Tariff Act: Section 307. On September 14, that petition was approved, barring companies from importing goods from Xinjiang into the United States if those goods were produced with forced labor.
Section 307 prohibits the importation of goods to the United States that are produced in any way by forced labor. For almost all of its existence, however, the code was ineffectual because of a provision waiving that ban if there was insufficient domestic production of the goods in question. CBP has only invoked Section 307 a handful of times in the first eighty-six years of the code’s existence. But in the past four years, CAL has worked with other groups to steadily increase that number.
CAL was co-founded by Charity Ryerson, who began thinking about global supply chains and corporate malfeasance as a college student involved in the anti-sweatshop movement.
In 2002, during a protest at the School of the Americas, a site where the U.S. military trained far-right Latin American military personnel in the Cold War (it’s since been renamed), Ryerson was arrested for civil disobedience and sentenced to spend six months in a federal prison.
While incarcerated, Ryerson drove a forklift and separated scrap metal for twelve cents an hour. That metal was used to build cages that authorities would then attach to pickup trucks and use to hold the immigrants that they detained in the desert.
“The work was difficult, degrading and demoralizing,” Ryerson recalled in a recent interview. “Factory workers around the world experience similar conditions producing for the U.S. market. But instead of being sentenced to such labor as a penalty for a crime, they are sentenced to this work as a result of an extremely unequal global economy.”
Ryerson, after her release, went to law school to better understand how underlying problems in global supply chains and U.S. businesses sustained this deeply unequal relationship. And as tackling those practices meant seeking legal remediation, Ryerson and several others founded CAL in 2017.
CAL’s purpose is to find ways to hold corporations accountable for their supply-chain abuses through whatever legal strategies can be made to work. Everything’s on the table, no matter how obscure it is.
CAL’s purpose is to find ways to hold corporations accountable for their supply-chain abuses through whatever legal strategies can be made to work. Everything’s on the table, no matter how obscure it is: Once the idea is there, they collaboratively workshop the idea and see if it can stand legal and ethical scrutiny.
CAL’s legal strategies have to be innovative, like the use of Section 307. “The United States is home to the world’s largest consumer market and many of the world’s largest companies,” Ryerson tells The Progressive. “But it is laggard when it comes to holding domestic corporations accountable for human rights abuses.”
The reason for the United State’s lack of corporate oversight has to do with the systematic dismantling of the strongest piece of law available to advocates: the Alien Tort Statute. One of the oldest laws in the United States, the ATS gives federal courts jurisdiction over lawsuits filed by foreign nationals for claims that violate international law. The law was rarely used until the 1980s, when it became widely deployed in an “abundance of litigation” on cases related to torture, war crimes, and other state-supported human rights violations. But the hope that ATS could also be wielded to reign in corporations steadily evaporated in the early 2000s, as a number of Supreme Court decisions limited its applicability.
The slow hollowing of the ATS has driven activists to seek out other legal strategies. CAL, as a result, functions like a laboratory for legal advocates: It’s a place for lawyers and activists to come together and think about how to leverage the legal system to accomplish their goals. And as their target is a globalized economy, CAL’s projects necessarily have to be globe-spanning.
In February, for instance, CAL filed a Section 307 that targeted chocolate companies in Cote d’Ivoire over widespread child trafficking in the cacao industry (a related case is currently making its way to the Supreme Court). In April, CAL began working with organizations in Colombia to target companies who financially supported armed groups during the country’s long civil war.
“Human rights attorneys in the United States are fighting for scraps of accountability in the courts, with almost no functional human rights law at our disposal,” Ryerson says.
So far, these strategies are proving effective: partly in response to CAL’s work, CBP authorized “Withhold Release Orders” on cotton, other crops, and electronics produced in Xinjiang. In 2018, CAL began creating language for employee contracts that make it possible for workers to enforce environmental or humanitarian aspects of their contracts; since then, CAL has begun embedding that language in thousands of worker contracts around the world.
CAL, however, is also in a difficult position as it has to rely on the laws of the U.S. government, which often actively abets human rights abuses like those being committed in Xinjiang. Cooperating with CBP, for instance, raises an ethical concern as the agency is also responsible for family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border. And even as CAL develops new legal strategies to prosecute corporate crime, the court system—which is increasingly conservative—is likely to continue undermining their efforts.
“Human rights attorneys in the United States are fighting for scraps of accountability in the courts, with almost no functional human rights law at our disposal,” Ryerson says, while remaining hopeful that the future “holds a different political landscape, where comprehensive federal legislation to end corporate impunity is possible.”