WASHINGTON: US Customs and Border Protection officials have prepared orders to block imports of cotton and tomato products from western China's Xinjiang region over allegations they are produced with forced labour, although a formal announcement has been delayed.
The Trump administration announcement of the actions, initially expected on Tuesday (Sep 8), has been put off until later this week because of "scheduling issues", a Customs and Border Protection spokesman said.
The cotton and tomato bans along with five other import bans over alleged Xinjiang forced-labour abuses would be an unprecedented move by Customs and Border Protection and likely stoke tensions between the world's two largest economies.
The "Withhold Release Orders" allow Customs and Border Protection to detain shipments based on suspicion of forced-labour involvement under long-standing US laws aimed at combating human trafficking, child labour and other human rights abuses.
President Donald Trump's administration is ratcheting up pressure on China over its treatment of Xinjiang's Uighur Muslims. The United Nations has said it has credible reports that 1 million Muslims have been detained in camps in the region, where they are put to work.
China denies mistreatment of the Uighurs and says the camps are vocational training centres needed to fight extremism.
Customs and Border Protection Executive Assistant Commissioner Brenda Smith told Reuters that the effective import bans would apply to the entire supply chains involving cotton, including cotton yarn, textiles and apparel, as well as tomatoes, tomato paste and other products exported from the region.
"We have reasonable but not conclusive evidence that there is a risk of forced labour in supply chains related to cotton textiles and tomatoes coming out of Xinjiang," Smith said in an interview. "We will continue to work our investigations to fill in those gaps."
US law requires the agency to detain shipments when there is an allegation of forced labour, such as from non-governmental organisations, she said.
The bans could have far-reaching effects for US retailers and apparel producers, as well as food manufacturers. China produces about 20 per cent of the world's cotton and most of it comes from Xinjiang. China also is the world's largest importer of cotton, including from the United States.
The China Cotton Association, a trade body, declined to comment on Wednesday.
A Beijing-based cotton trader said the impact may be limited as China brings in about 2 million tonnes of cotton and 2 million tonnes of cotton yarn from abroad each year, which may be sufficient to produce textiles for the United States. Xinjiang's output is about 5 million tonnes.
"If Xinjiang cotton goes to the domestic industry and non-Western markets, the impact may be limited, it can probably still be digested," he said.
In the short-term, it could also boost cotton imports into China, he added.
"ABUSIVE WORKING AND LIVING CONDITIONS"
In March, US lawmakers proposed legislation that would effectively assume that all goods produced in Xinjiang are made with forced labour and would require certification that they are not.
In July, Washington issued an advisory saying companies doing business in Xinjiang or with entities using Xinjiang labour could be exposed to "reputational, economic, and legal risks."
The State Department also said it sent a letter to top American companies including Walmart, Apple and Amazon warning them over risks faced from maintaining supply chains associated with human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.
In a draft announcement seen by Reuters, Customs and Border Protection said it identified forced-labour indicators involving the cotton, textile and tomato supply chains "including debt bondage, unfree movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages, and abusive working and living conditions".
The agency's orders would block cotton produced by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and apparel produced by Yili Zhuowan Garment Manufacturing and Baoding LYSZD Trade and Business. It says those entities use prison labour from Chinese government administered "re-education" internment camps.
In addition, the proposed orders would block imports of products made at the Lop County Industrial Park as well as the Lop County No. 4 Vocational Skills Education and Training Center. The moves follow the detention on Jul 1 of hair extensions and other goods from Lop County Meixin Hair Product.
The Customs and Border Protection orders would also block imports of computer parts made by Hefei Bitland Information Technology, based in Anhui, China.