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US Officials, Suspecting Forced Labor, Seize Shipment of Chinese Hair Goods

FILE - U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents hold a news conference in Donna, Texas, May 2, 2019.
FILE - U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents hold a news conference in Donna, Texas, May 2, 2019.

The U.S. government on Wednesday said it blocked an $800,000 shipment of hair extensions and accessories from China on suspicions that the products were made with forced labor.

The goods were held under a June order against a Xinjiang-based company suspected of using prison labor and forced labor with excessive overtime, withheld wages and restrictions on workers' movements, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said.

The United States bans the import of goods made entirely or in part by forced labor, whether prison work or bonded or forced child labor.

The CBP order dated June 17 called for the detention of goods made by Xinjiang's Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co.

The importers of the detained shipments must prove the merchandise was not produced with forced labor or export it elsewhere, the agency said.

Human rights, unfair competition

"The use of forced labor is not just a serious human rights issue, but also brings about unfair competition in our global supply chains," said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of the CBP's Office of Trade, in a statement accompanying the June order.

The autonomous Xinjiang region in northwest China is home to a large population of Muslim Uighur people, an ethnic minority who speak a Turkic language and face repression from the Chinese government.

The United Nations has said it has credible reports that 1 million Muslims have been detained in camps in the region.

China denies mistreatment of the Uighurs and says the camps are vocational training centers needed to fight extremism.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the United States said in an email that the suspicions of forced labor were an effort to bring down Chinese business.

"The lawful labor rights and interests of the Chinese citizens of all ethnic groups, including those in Xinjiang, are protected by law," the spokesperson said. "The accusation of 'forced labor' in Xinjiang is both false and malicious."

The CBP has been criticized for not sufficiently enforcing U.S. law against forced labor imports. Critics say the agency's forced labor division is understaffed and underfunded.

A CBP spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the agency has been working to develop and expand the division, and that the number of forced labor investigations was rising.

In October, the CBP said it had blocked imports suspected to have been produced with forced labor from five countries, including clothing from China and diamonds from Zimbabwe.

The number of forced labor prosecutions is low, so the CBP's orders to halt imports are a powerful tool, said Martina Vandenberg, head of the Washington-based Human Trafficking Legal Center.

"Criminal justice remedies have failed," she said. "Advocates are looking for more innovative and creative tools to combat forced labor in supply chains."

Fewer than 1,000 prosecutions

There were just 939 labor trafficking prosecutions around the world in 2019, according to the U.S. State Department's most recent Trafficking in Persons Report.

The CBP can issue a "withhold release order" when it believes goods were made by forced labor, and it has issued 16 of them since March 2016.

The CBP said the blocked imports from Xinjiang, which included long hair extensions, weighed 13 tons and were held at a port in Newark, New Jersey.

Lop County Meixin could not be reached for comment.

Two weeks ago, President Donald Trump signed legislation calling for sanctions on China over its treatment of Uighurs.

The State Department separately on Wednesday issued an advisory to caution businesses about supply chain links to Xinjiang.

In Britain, lawyers and campaigners are trying to halt imports of cotton goods originating from Xinjiang.