Implementing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act: A Challenge Worth the Effort
The logo of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. Photo by CBP
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, also known as the UFLPA, was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Dec. 23, 2021. This significant international trade legislation was the U.S. response to the Chinese government’s systemic use of forced labor against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, or XUAR, in the People’s Republic of China.
Almost 28 million people currently are victims of forced labor, according to the International Labour Organization, which they define as, “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.” This also includes indentured labor and child labor.
The two CBP components primarily responsible for enforcing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act – the Office of Trade and the Office of Field Operations – began implementing the rebuttable presumption that went into effect on June 21, 2022 after months of intense preparation. That presumption means CBP will treat all goods produced entirely or in part in the XUAR as if they were produced with forced labor, and therefore, prohibited from entering the U.S. pursuant to Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930.
Personnel from across CBP work together to identify and interdict goods from, or made with inputs from, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in order to enforce the UFLPA. Goods produced with forced labor threaten American jobs by creating unfair economic competition, expose consumers to the risk of unknowingly purchasing goods made with forced labor, finance criminal organizations and result in atrocious human rights violations.
Enforcement is an ongoing challenge, as bad actors continue to seek to benefit financially by circumventing the UFLPA to introduce goods made with forced labor into U.S. markets. Case in point: XUAR jujubes.
Red dates, also known as jujubes, are small, pitted fruits popular throughout Asia. China produces 40% of the world’s supply, and the Uyghur Human Rights Project issued a report estimating that 50% of China’s jujubes originate in the XUAR. The report said jujubes produced in XUAR continued to turn up on U.S. supermarket shelves even after UFLPA implementation.
The XUAR was financially benefiting from the circumvention of the UFLPA on the sales of jujubes, according to the Uyghur Human Rights Project report, despite CBP’s enforcement efforts. When international trade analysts Diana Sassmann and Erika Ribeiro of CBP Office of Trade’s New York National Threat Analysis Center saw the Uyghur Human Rights Project report, they immediately sprang into action, and CBP initiated a dynamic and collaborative approach to ensure the correct actions were taken.
Sassmann and Ribeiro have worked on the agency’s XUAR portfolio for nearly three years: first on the forced labor Withhold Release Orders linked to cotton from the XUAR and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and later on the development and implementation of the Department of Homeland Security’s UFLPA Strategy. They already knew that much of China’s jujube supply originates in the XUAR and were actively identifying producers there. But entities located outside of the region that export XUAR-origin jujubes were elusive to pin down.
“What we’ve noticed when we’re looking into where XUAR dates are coming from, is that it looks like they’re harvested in the XUAR but shipped from other areas,” Ribeiro explained. She said this is symptomatic of the difficulty of forced labor targeting – particularly in China.
Sassmann noted that it’s a common problem with agricultural products in general. “It’s not unusual … to have something grown on a farm in one place, and the packing house is somewhere else. This is part of the challenge.” Sassmann said that this practice isn’t inherently illegal. In fact, it’s normal practice in the agriculture industry. But it does make identifying the origin of goods more challenging. She said with the UFLPA, “it has become normal operating procedure [for Chinese producers] to obfuscate the origin of goods from the XUAR,” making work for CBP employees more difficult.
This case illustrates why reports from civil society, non-governmental organizations and industry play a major role in CBP’s work to keep goods made with forced labor out of the U.S. Sassmann and Ribeiro, armed with the information provided in the Uyghur Human Rights Project report and intelligence gleaned from other sources, identified several inbound shipments that they suspected contained jujubes originating in the XUAR – including one at the nearby Port of Newark, New Jersey, that arrived that very day.
Sassmann and Ribeiro acted quickly, reaching out to their colleagues at the Port of Newark to request they hold the shipment for inspection. Michael Vernon, a deputy chief at the Port of Newark, promptly agreed and worked with import specialists from the Agriculture and Prepared Products Center of Excellence and Expertise, or APP Center, to examine the shipment and its accompanying documentation.
The APP Center has a network of staff located across the U.S. and are therefore well positioned to assist the officers at various ports of entry, conducting joint examinations, and providing photos of the labeling to be translated. The APP Center sends examination results back to the port and CBP’s Forced Labor Division depending upon the outcome of the review.
APP Center import specialists Eugene Gambardella, Ethan Kemler and Paul Guastella, as a part of their examination in this case, photographed suspicious labels and markings on the shipment’s packaging as well as the merchandise itself before enlisting the expertise and assistance of Altungul Emet, a translator who is fluent in Mandarin and Uyghur.
Emet works in CBP’s Civil Enforcement Division and has worked closely with the New York National Threat Analysis Center on UFLPA enforcement. She grew up in Hami, a city in the eastern part of the XUAR, so supporting CBP’s UFLPA enforcement efforts really hit home. “As an American with a Uyghur background, I was proud that my skills could contribute to this mission to support the UFLPA, and to be part of this tireless CBP team. I am clearly in the right place at the right time,” she said.
Emet identified the logo of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, as well as other references to the XUAR, on the packaging after examining the photographs from the port. This triggered an immediate red flag since the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps is a paramilitary organization that has been sanctioned by the U.S. for several years, even before UFLPA implementation began, and is on the UFLPA Entity List, a list of entities in the XUAR known to use forced labor.
The Port of Newark had all the evidence it needed to detain the shipment with this new piece of the puzzle in place. The examination and action in New York and New Jersey triggered a domino effect on the other side of the country, where additional shipments were intercepted and examined in Los Angeles and Oakland, California – several bearing markings indicating links to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
With increasingly complex supply chains that span the globe, the UFLPA presents unique enforcement challenges to CBP personnel whose job it is to prevent goods produced with forced labor, in any part of the supply chain, from reaching U.S. shelves. Dina Amato, director of CBP’s APP Center, acknowledges the difficulty: “Everything about CBP’s work is complex and has challenges – specifically, the layers within the supply chain and the complex documents we must review to make a determination of admissibility,” she said. “I truly believe it is how we learn from these challenges and overcome them that turns them into successes.”
“What could be more rewarding than coming to work every day, partnering with the dedicated men and women from CBP to identify the needles in the haystack, and then stopping goods produced using forced labor from entering the United States? Every aspect of this process is rewarding because forced labor is about people in need. And CBP forges a path forward,” Amato said.
Enforcing these laws is not just their job to CBP employees, it is the right thing to do. Forced labor spans every region of the world according to the U.S. Department of Labor. CBP’s goal is not only to eliminate forced labor from U.S. supply chains, but to curtail the practice altogether – a mission employees firmly stand behind. “CBP is leading the way in stopping profiteering from forced labor and human misery,” said Evan Thomas, a national import specialist assigned to CBP’s National Commodity Specialist Division who has worked extensively on UFLPA enforcement. He went on to say this is the most rewarding part of his job.
There is hope for real change in working conditions for millions of people throughout the world with the dedicated, deeply knowledgeable and determined CBP employees on the case.