Government officials have dodged questions about what specific action Australia is taking to respond to concerns over the widespread use of forced labour in Xinjiang.
A parliamentary committee is considering an import ban on products and components produced in the western Chinese province under proposed laws put forward by independent Senator Rex Patrick.
The United Nations has urged companies and countries to closely scrutinise their supply chains over concerns about the alleged detention and forced labour of ethnic-minority Uighurs in China.
Experts and Uighurs in Australia have raised concerns that Australia does not have specific measures in place to combat the use of forced labour in Xinjiang.
The committee examining proposed laws to bolster its response on Tuesday heard that the Australian government’s broad laws to address modern slavery don’t go far enough in responding to concerns in Xinjiang.
In the hearing, Senator Patrick pressed government officials on how government agencies were communicating with Australian companies concerned about importing goods from Xinjiang.
“What specific advice does DFAT or Border Force give to companies that are concerned about importing goods from Xinjiang?” Senator Patrick asked.
In response, Australian Border Force official Frances Finney did not give specifics, pointing to publicly-available advice on the website relating to the Modern Slavery Act.
“In the business advice we have on our internet, it doesn’t go to particular regions or locations – it goes to risk factors,” she said.
“The Act is not set up to be pointing to particular advice on regions at this point in time.”
Australia urged to follow other countries’ footsteps
The United Nations has cited credible reports that allege up to one million Uighurs have been held in political re-education camps in Xinjiang. China strongly denies allegations of human rights abuses.
The UN warned that Uighurs have been forcibly transferred to work in factories in Xinjiang and elsewhere in the country.
Amid increasing concerns over the documented forced labour of Uighurs, Britain, Canada and the United States have now all made moves to slow the importation of goods from Xinjiang.
These countries have implemented targeted measures directly aimed at preventing imports being sourced from forced labour in Xinjiang.
Senator Patrick went on to question government officials over whether they had examined a US Department of Commerce blacklist of nearly 50 companies over alleged Xinjiang violations.
Government officials again provided no firm answer on whether the government had inspected the list to determine any connections to Australian companies.
“We have the Modern Slavery Act, which is the obligation on all Australian businesses to look at their supply chains and report about their supply chains,” DFAT official Lucienne Manton said.
Senator Patrick questioned officials about why the government appeared not to have shown the due diligence to pursue this matter.
“[It] appears to me there is a list that has been complied that you are aware of, but you haven’t even gone down the simple pathway of seeing if those companies have Australian connections,” he said.
“Is there any reason why the people inside DFAT have not looked at this list and said – noting the concerns that we have – [that] we need to examine this?”
Several major global brands, including H&M, Nike and Adidas, have previously expressed concern over allegations that members of the mostly Muslim Uighur minority group are being used as forced labour.
Ms Manton suggested the approach of other countries to address forced labour in their supply chains was not directly comparable to Australia.
“In Australia we have the Modern Slavery Act and we continue to engage with other countries on their approaches,” Ms Manton said.
Senator Rex Patrick said the US, Canada and the UK had been issuing business advisories in relation to Xinjiang, questioning whether Australia had done the same.
DFAT official Alice Cawte said Australia did not provide written similar adversaries, but had provided information to countries seeking guidance on the situation in Xinjiang.
“We have had companies come to us and we tell them about our concerns about human rights and supply chain in terms of other integrity in China,” she said.
Australia introduced the Modern Slavery Act focused on stamping out modern slavery in late 2018.
The policy is due to be reviewed in 2022.
Australia ‘behind the curve’ on addressing forced labour
A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released last year found more than 80,000 people were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019 linked to almost 100 global brands.
ASPI Researcher James Leibold said reports of widespread forced labour required a more robust target response from the Australian government.
“The forced labour problem in Xinjiang is acute and thus requires special treatment – including a more targeted set of legislation and sanctions,” he told the hearing.
“I believe the Australian government is kind of behind the curve here … I think we need to do more to speak out, to explore both legislation as well as other sanctions.”
Uighurs in Australia are also pleading with the Australian government to implement stronger specific measures to ban products produced in Xinjiang.
Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association spokesperson Ramila Chanisheff said Uighurs in Australia felt deeply distressed about the situation facing family in Xinjiang.
“Australia and the rest of the world have been too slow in responding,” she said.
“Legislating prohibiting and penalising the use of slave labour must be implemented and done so urgently.”