According to Voice of America (VOA) reports, Vietnam has surpassed China to become the foremost exporter to the United States of goods implicated by the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA). This act, a legislative response by the U.S. to the distressing human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, aims to block the import of products manufactured through the forced labor of Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups. The shift not only marks a significant moment in international trade dynamics but also casts a somber shadow on the persistent and complex issue of forced labor in global supply chains.
Recent enforcement statistics disclosed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection unveil this disturbing trend, indicating that in 2023, Vietnam was at the forefront of exporting products that were subsequently denied entry into the U.S. under the UFLPA, a position previously ‘held’ by China. This development is particularly notable in the sectors of apparel, footwear, and textiles, where Vietnam’s exports were flagged for suspicions of forced labor origins, leading to significant portions of shipments being rejected at U.S. borders. The Vietnamese government’s silence in response to these findings, juxtaposed with China’s vehement denials of the grave charges of mass detentions and forced labor practices in Xinjiang, only adds credibility to the cover up.
Phil Robertson, the deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, highlighted the grim realities of this situation in an email to VOA Vietnamese, stating, “This report presents the very intriguing development that goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang are increasingly being diverted to Vietnam for re-shipment to the US.” He emphasized the urgent need for the U.S. to leverage its “newly upgraded bilateral relationship with Vietnam” to halt these tainted goods from reaching American shores. The disturbing reality that these diversions of forced labor products are simply rerouted through countries like Vietnam rather than being eliminated is a glaring testament to the challenges of eradicating forced labor from the global trade ecosystem.
The U.S.’s elevation of its relations with Vietnam to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” underscores the potential for collaboration in addressing these pressing issues. Yet, as Robertson points out, the situation is far from simple, with the intricate web of global supply chains making it challenging to ensure the ethical sourcing of products. This is further complicated by reports, such as those from Human Rights Watch, exposing the automotive industry’s vulnerability to forced labor practices in Xinjiang, specifically in the aluminum supply chain—a critical material for automotive parts.
Jim Wormington, a senior researcher at HRW and author of the report titled “Asleep at the Wheel,” elucidated the opacity that plagues the aluminum supply chain, noting, “The aluminum supply chain operates with multiple layers between the car company and the aluminum producer, and these layers create an opaqueness that kind of benefits the car industry because carmakers can buy material without knowing its origin and without knowing the risks to a context like Xinjiang.” This statement sheds light on the daunting challenge of tracing the origins of materials and the potential complicity of global industries in perpetuating human rights abuses.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington, in response to accusations of facilitating forced labor in Xinjiang, dismissed them as “a lie of the century fabricated to smear China,” asserting that the rights of workers in Xinjiang are “concretely guaranteed.” However, this claim stands in stark contrast to the overwhelming evidence and testimonies that paint a harrowing picture of coercion, deprivation, and exploitation. The world has known about China’s practices with the Uyghurs for a long time. Vietnam’s practices are less well known.
The fight against forced labor requires not just legislative measures but a collective moral reckoning, urging governments, businesses, and civil society to join forces in ensuring transparency, accountability, and the upholding of fundamental human rights. The ongoing saga of forced labor in supply chains, underscored by the recent developments involving Vietnam and China, serves as a somber reminder of totalitarian ways of China and the ease with which such atrocities slip through in the marketplace.
It is likely that Vietnam can be pressured to cease its use of forced labor. They have a lot to lose in the market, with not very much invested in such reprehensible behavior.
China, on the other hand, seems to take pride thumbing their nose at the world and treating human rights as a minor issue, second to the goals of the Chinese Communist Party.