U.S. Customs Officials Target Suspected Forced Labor From China’s Xinjiang Region
Recent seizure of 13 tons of hair is part of a broader effort to clamp down on imports suspected of originating from human-rights violations
A top U.S. Customs and Border Protection official said a recent seizure of nearly 13 tons of hair from a Chinese manufacturer was part of a broader agency effort to clamp down on imports suspected of originating from forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region, where Muslims have faced mass detentions.
U.S. officials halted the shipment from Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co. last week after months of investigating both the manufacturer and the region where it operates, said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of the agency’s Office of Trade. She said the Xinjiang region in northwestern China has become Customs and Border Protection’s most active area in the world for forced-labor investigations.
Ms. Smith said the seizure served as a reminder that U.S. importers are obligated to ensure that their supply chains are free of forced labor.
“We are foot-stomping that message with our communications,” she said.
The U.S. Customs investigations have been triggered by China’s treatment of its Muslim population in recent years, which U.S. officials say have led to human-rights abuses. China has built detention camps to hold more than one million Uighur Muslims and other minorities without trial, according to estimates by academic researchers and human-rights observers.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington described the allegations of mistreatment of its Uighur population and of forced labor in Xinjiang as a smear campaign and accused the U.S. of meddling in China’s domestic affairs.
“The lawful labor rights and interests of the Chinese citizens of all ethnic groups, including those in Xinjiang, are protected by law,” the Embassy said. “The accusation of ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang is both false and malicious.”
Beijing has defended the detentions of Uighurs and other minority populations in northwest China as an effort to counter extremism and to quell an occasionally violent separatist movement in the region.
Ms. Smith said that U.S. Customs officials have been monitoring the region for 18 months and plan to continue investigating manufacturing processes that are suspected of producing goods made with forced labor.
Federal law has banned the import of any items made by forced labor, which includes convict labor and indentured child labor, since the 1930s. The law is designed to eliminate U.S. market demand for those items. Violators face cargo seizure and criminal investigations.
Customs and Border Protection officials have the power to issue withhold-release orders, a notification to its agents to stop cargo on any containers routed through U.S. ports of entry. Customs officials have issued at least four dozen orders against importers in several countries since the 1990s, according to the agency’s website.
Wednesday’s detention of the hair shipment—which included products such as hair weaves and extensions—marks the next phase of the agency’s investigation into Lop County Meixin Hair Product’s manufacturing process. Customs officials will further evaluate whether the hair came from humans and whether the hair came from a forced donation or was sold willingly by the donor.
The company couldn’t be reached for comment.
Federal guidelines give customs officials the power to act on forced-labor suspicions when the information they gather “reasonably but not conclusively indicates that merchandise” was made illegally.
The hair shipment, valued at more than $800,000, was the first package to be detained after customs officials instructed port directors on June 17 to hold any items made by Lop County Meixin Hair Product. The shipment was detained by officers at the Port of New York at Newark, N.J.
The agency’s pre-detention order review of Lop County Meixin Hair Product took less than six months, Ms. Smith said. The orders came despite major challenges to investigators who had trouble accessing the region, interviewing key people and collecting documents, she said.
Customs officials also have instructed port directors to halt shipments from two other manufacturers, Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories Co. and Hetian Taida Apparel Co., for their role in suspected forced labor.
Western scrutiny over labor conditions in China’s Xinjiang region has increased in recent months, and U.S. officials have previously warned companies about conducting business there. The supply chains of dozens of multinationals in the fashion and food industries often pass through Xinjiang, putting them at risk of using forced labor.
Last week, officials from the Commerce, Treasury, Homeland Security and State departments reiterated that U.S. companies that rely on Xinjiang-based suppliers or customers may face legal consequences for their role in any involvement with entities blamed for human-rights abuses.
Since October, the Commerce Department has put several Chinese entities on an export blacklist over allegations of human-rights violations in Xinjiang.