The WTO Can Help Shine a Spotlight on Forced-Labor Practices in Xinjiang’s Cotton Industry

The World Trade Organization (WTO) on May 28 will convene one of its biannual “dedicated discussions” to review trade-related developments on cotton. The purpose of these discussions, an outcome of the WTO’s 2013 Bali Ministerial Conference, is to ensure full transparency on all trade-related matters affecting cotton in the areas of market access, domestic support, and export competition. The value of the discussions largely depends upon the information supplied by WTO members through their required notifications of trade subsidies and measures as well as other data members may decide to share.

For next month’s dedicated discussion to have credibility, it must examine the trade impact of the use of forced labor to pick cotton in China’s Xinjiang province. In light of what we have learned about forced-labor practices in Xinjiang, it is inconceivable that the WTO would convene a meeting on cotton and trade and not include these practices as a topic worthy of review. Simply put, ignoring what is happening in Xinjiang would be tantamount to the WTO holding a meeting on global public health and trade without mentioning the Covid-19 pandemic.

Recent reports have documented that hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang have been forced to pick cotton by hand through a state-mandated labor transfer and “poverty alleviation” scheme, part of China’s Strike Hard Campaign against alleged extremism among the province’s Muslim population. Some of those participating in these labor transfers have spent time in Xinjiang’s extensive network of internment camps.

Picking cotton by hand is exhausting and debilitating work, with the wages paid typically very low. As explained by researcher Adrian Zenz, the labor transfers in Xinjiang “involve coercive mobilization through local work teams, transfers of pickers in tightly supervised groups, and intrusive on-site surveillance by government officials and (in at least some cases) police officers.” The labor situation in Xinjiang is so concerning that the U.S. government has effectively banned the importation into the United States of all cotton products originating from the province.

Xinjiang plays an important role in global cotton production. Cotton sourced from Xinjiang accounts for approximately 85 percent of China’s overall production and more than 20 percent of the global share. Xinjiang cotton is used throughout Asia as part of the garment production process.

The use of forced labor in the province has likely depressed the global price of cotton, adversely impacted other cotton-exporting nations (particularly those in the developing world) and improperly distorted global trade flows. Trade attorney Terence Stewart suggests that forced- labor practices in Xinjiang may in fact constitute actionable subsidies under the WTO’s Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Duties. Beijing has also encouraged boycotts of foreign retailers operating within China that have sought to distance themselves from products made with cotton harvested in Xinjiang.

The United States should bring the issue of forced labor in Xinjiang directly to the WTO by placing it on the agenda of the upcoming dedicated discussion on cotton and trade. Whatever information the U.S. government has developed about forced labor in the cotton fields of Xinjiang and its impact on trade should be shared with other WTO members. Doing so would be consistent with President Biden’s trade agenda, which makes combating forced labor a priority. It is also consistent with the views of U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai, who said during her confirmation hearing that forced labor is “the crudest example of the race to the bottom in global trade.”

Unfortunately, cotton is not the only industry in Xinjiang suspected of utilizing forced labor. The U.S. government has also banned the importation of tomato products from Xinjiang because of similar concerns. With Xinjiang now the global center for the production of silicon-based solar modules, there is also concern that solar companies with factories operating in Xinjiang may be resorting to forced labor. While the labor practices deployed in these industries and others in Xinjiang merit close scrutiny, the WTO has established a specific forum to examine policies and practices affecting trade in cotton. The United States should seize this opportunity to shine a spotlight on what is happening in the cotton fields of Xinjiang. 

Focusing on trade in a specific industry like cotton may seem trivial in light of the allegations of mass imprisonment, family separation, forced sterilization, and other forms of mistreatment that have led the U.S government as well as the parliaments of Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom to declare that a genocide is taking place in Xinjiang. But China values its membership in the WTO, which has provided a platform for its remarkable economic growth over the past two decades. The Chinese government certainly does not want the WTO to became a forum in which it has to defend its use of forced labor in Xinjiang. That is even more reason why the United States and other WTO members should press the issue there.

Dennis Shea is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Dennis Shea

Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Scholl Chair in International Business