WASHINGTON – The U.S. announced Wednesday that it will halt imports of cotton and tomatoes from the Uighur region of China in its most sweeping action yet to pressure the Communist Party over its campaign against ethnic minorities.
Officials said Customs and Border Protection will use its authority to block products suspected of being produced with forced labor to keep out cotton, tomatoes and related products from the Xinjiang region of northwest China.
Xinjiang is a major global supplier of cotton, so the order could have significant effects on international commerce. The Trump administration has already blocked imports from individual companies linked to forced labor in the region, and the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Communist Party officials with prominent roles in the campaign.
The order will put economic pressure not just on China but major global retailers who unwittingly or otherwise import goods produced by people under conditions that are akin to modern-day slavery.
“Any global apparel brand that is not either out of Xinjiang already, or plotting a very swift exit, is courting legal and reputational disaster,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights monitoring organization. “The days when any major apparel brand can safely profit from Xinjiang cotton are over.”
The consortium estimates the ban affects about 20% of the global cotton supply.
The U.S. imported about $9 billion worth of cotton goods from China overall last year, according to Brenda Smith, the executive assistant commissioner at Customs and Border Protection's Office of Trade. That does not include products from third countries.
“The ultimate goal is that China abandons these horrific practices,” Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a conference call with reporters to announce the latest measure.
China has imprisoned more than 1 million people, including Uighurs and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups, in a vast network of concentration camps.
Uighur forced labor has been linked by reporting from The Associated Press to various products imported to the U.S., including clothing and electronic goods.