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The European Parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a new law that prevents the import and distribution of goods made with forced labor, a move that Uyghur advocates said would help clamp down on China’s use of forced labor in far western Xinjiang.

The Forced Labour Regulation, which places the burden of proof on the EU rather than on companies, was approved in a 555-6 vote, with 45 abstentions.

The law will allow authorities in EU member states and the European Commission to investigate suspicious goods, supply chains and manufacturers. Products they determine to be made with forced labor cannot be sold in the EU, including online, and will be confiscated at the border.

Manufacturers of banned goods must withdraw their products from the EU single market and donate, recycle or destroy them. Companies that fail to comply can be fined. 

Uyghur activists welcomed the measure, although it does not specifically ban products made by Uyghur forced labor, and some pointed out shortcomings.

“The passage of this legislation also sends a powerful message to the Chinese companies doing business in Europe that have continuously benefited from the Uyghur forced labor despite repeated warnings,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, or WUC.

The EU’s 27 countries must now approve the regulation for it to enter into force, a measure that is largely a formality. After ratification, they will have three years to implement the law.

Missed opportunity

Zumretay Arkin, WUC's director of global advocacy, called the parliament’s vote positive, but said the EU “missed a crucial opportunity to agree on an instrument that could meaningfully address forced labor when the government is the perpetrator, like in the Uyghur region in China.”

“We welcome this milestone but stress that all related guidance, guidelines and considerations of when to investigate cases be created in a way that ensures the regulation can effectively ban products made with state-imposed forced labor,” she said in a statement from the London-based Anti-Slavery International. 

Absent from the law are key provisions that would have heightened its effectiveness, including a method of redress for forced labor victims, said the rights group which works to end modern slavery.

A similar law took effect in the United States in 2021 banning the import of goods made using forced labor in Xinjiang, where the U.S. government has said China is committing genocide against the 11 million mostly Muslim Uyghurs. 

Beijing has denied accusations of human rights violations in Xinjiang, despite substantial evidence that it has detained an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples in “re-education” camps, where they received training in various skills and were forced to work in factories making everything from chemicals and clothing to car parts.

The European Parliament passed a resolution in June 2022 saying China's treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang amounted to crimes against humanity and held a “serious risk of genocide.”

‘Less teeth’

The EU law has “significantly less teeth” than the U.S. Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, but the crux will be the way it's implemented by investigating authorities, said Adrian Zenz, senior fellow and director in China studies at the Washington-based Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

The EU regulation contains a provision that the EU must align itself according to the forced labor definitions and standards of the International Labour Organization, or ILO, which has published updated guidelines containing provisions capable of targeting Uyghur forced labor in Xinjiang, Zenz said. 

One of the new provisions is that state-imposed forced labor is best assessed as a risk rather than a specific instance. This points to the fact that state-imposed forced labor creates a pervasive risk in an entire targeted region that is difficult, if not impossible, to assess in particular situations such as in places where there is no freedom to speak out, he said.

“There’s the possibility that the [European] Commission in its investigation … could make a finding of forced labor without having to prove every connection to every supply chain, by determining that this region is not cooperating, is not providing accurate information, and in line with what the ILO guidelines say about state-imposed forced labor, that it's best assessed as a systemic risk,” he said. 

“That increases the scope of being more effective in its implementation.” 

The approval of the Forced Labour Regulation comes ahead of a European Parliament vote expected this week on the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, which creates a legal liability for companies relating to environmental and human rights violations within their supply chains.  

“Together, these laws will send a strong message to workers around the world that the EU will not stand for forced labor,” said Anti-Slavery International.

Edited by Malcolm Foster.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Alim Seytoff for RFA Uyghur and Roseanne Gerin for RFA.