Australia examines modern slavery laws amid concerns over products linked to Uyghur abuse

Australia examines modern slavery laws amid concerns over products linked to Uyghur abuse

Australia accused of being slow to respond to human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region because of fears of trade sanctions

Protesters hold a Uyghur flag and an Australian flag at a rally for the Uyghur community outside Parliament House in Canberra in March.
Protesters hold a Uyghur and Australian flag at a rally outside Parliament House in Canberra in March. Independent senator Rex Patrick is pushing to prohibit the importation into Australia of goods from Xinjiang due to concerns about forced Uyghur labour. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP
 Foreign affairs and defence correspondent@danielhurstbne

The Australian government has left the door open to toughening up the nation’s laws against modern slavery amid concerns about human rights abuses in China’s Xinjiang region.

Officials also revealed at a Senate hearing on Tuesday that the government was in regular discussions “with all China-facing businesses” and had used those conversations to highlight the risks of forced labour in supply chains from Xinjiang.

Uyghur community representatives told the same hearing Australia had been too slow to respond to “severe oppression” and “atrocities” in the region, possibly because the government was afraid of facing further trade sanctions from Beijing, which denies the accusations.

British MPs voted last week to declare that China was committing genocide against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, following the passage of similar motions in the Canadian and Dutch parliaments and in line with the US government’s position.

A detention centre for Uighurs in Xinjiang, China.
A detention centre for Uighurs in Xinjiang, China. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

The Australian government signalled it would consider tighter restrictions as part of a forthcoming review of the Modern Slavery Act, which critics say is weak because it doesn’t carry fines for breaches.

The legislation that passed the parliament in 2018 is limited in its scope, with only Australia’s biggest companies – those with annual revenue of more than $100m – required to submit annual statements on the steps they are taking to address modern slavery in their supply chains and operations.

Vanessa Holben, an Australian Border Force group manager, said the government would review the law next year “to ensure it is delivering a targeted, effective response”.

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“The government will continue to monitor reports of forced labour globally, including in Xinjiang, and assess Australia’s policy settings and engage with stakeholders and partners with a view to supporting international efforts to reduce the risk of modern slavery, including forced labour, in Australia’s supply chains,” she said.

The Senate’s foreign affairs, defence and trade legislation committee is investigating a bill proposed by the independent senator Rex Patrick, which would prohibit the importation into Australia of goods from Xinjiang “as well as goods from other parts of China that are produced by using forced labour”.

But Holben pushed back at the sweeping proposal, saying Patrick’s bill “conflates distinct policy matters and does not take into account the practicalities of implementation”. She questioned the suggestion that it was possible to identify goods produced by forced labour or the regional and provincial origins.

Holben said the Australian government was “deeply concerned” about reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang, noting the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, had described the situation as “amongst the world’s most egregious human rights abuses”.

Senators asked officials why the Australian government had not yet joined the UK, US and Canada in issuing written advice to the corporate sector on the risk of doing business with suppliers in Xinjiang.

Alice Cawte, an acting first assistant secretary at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, said the government was in regular discussions with firms that traded with China and “there can be no doubt that the businesses we speak to are aware of the Australian government’s concerns”.

“No, we don’t have written advisories but … we have had companies come to us and we tell them of our concerns about human rights and supply chain integrity in terms of forced labour and other issues in China and in Xinjiang,” Cawte said.

Patrick raised concern that the government had not examined in detail a US government-issued blacklist of companies, to see if any Australian companies were working with those suppliers or importers. He contended the government was “sitting on its hands”.

The president of the Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association, Ramilla Chanisheff, called for urgent action, saying as a community leader she was “constantly reminded of the atrocities occurring to the Uyghurs and other Turkic people living in East Turkestan, also known as Xinjiang, China”.

“As Uyghur Australians, we have all become activists,” she told the Senate committee.

“Without training or guidance we are finding our path to be the voices and faces of the millions who are being held in camps and/or living under severe oppression in China.”

Chanisheff said Uyghurs were “held in secure compounds, working extremely long hours and under constant surveillance and with political indoctrination as part of their daily routine”.

“They have limited or no communications with their families, mothers have been separated from their babies and families have been torn apart,” she told senators.

“Every single Uyghur in Australia have family members and/or friends in these concentration and/or labour camps.”

Australia needed to coordinate its actions with like-minded countries, because it had been “slapped with a lot of tariffs” for calling for an independent inquiry into Covid-19 without public backing from other partners, Chanisheff said.

She was hopeful that a united international effort would persuade China to “back down a little bit and open its doors and hopefully, hopefully let these people out from these concentration camps and let them live a dignified and humane life”.

“We are already falling behind: people are disappearing, are dying and we need to take action,” Chanisheff said.

Be Slavery Free, a coalition of anti-slavery campaigners, said consumers deserved to know when imported goods had been made with forced labour.

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“Our values need to be infused in our trading relationships,” Carolyn Kitto, the co-director of Be Slavery Free, said.

The Chinese ambassador, Cheng Jingye, has warned Australia against following its counterparts in sanctioning officials over an issue he considered “disinformation”, saying Beijing would not “swallow the bitter pill” of interference in its internal affairs and would “respond in kind”.

The Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye.
The Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

During questioning by Australian journalists at an event organised by the Chinese embassy earlier this month, officials in Xinjiang said the estimate that at least 1 million Uyghurs and members of other minority groups were in concentration camps was a “fabrication” – but declined several requests to reveal a current figure.

The authorities in the region characterise the sites as “vocational education and training centres” and insist “there are no concentration camps” but say they have been cracking down on alleged terrorists and separatists.