The U.S. Customs and Border Protection will seize shipments containing cotton and cotton products originating from Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a major cotton producer in the region, home to about 11 million Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group.
“The labels made in China” are not just about the country of origin, “said Ken Cuccinelli, a senior official at the Ministry of Homeland Security. “Those cheap cotton products that you may buy for family and friends during the season, if coming from China, may be made from slave labor in some of the most serious human rights abuses that exist today.”
On Wednesday, the CBP issued a so-called “cancellation order” on cotton from Xinjiang Manufacturing and Construction Company, which allows the agency to detain shipments in U.S. ports and give companies the opportunity to export goods or show that the goods were not made by forced labor.
The latest orders apply to all cotton products from Xinjiang Manufacturing and Construction Co., Ltd. and related units such as textiles, clothing, oilseeds, cottonseed and paper.
“The accessibility of the XPCC is quite special in Xinjiang,” Cuccinelli said. The company employs about 12% of the population in Xinjiang and produces 17% of the Lao cotton industry, according to CBP.
Eighty-five percent of all cotton produced in China comes from Xinjiang, according to CBP Executive Director Brenda Smith, who noted the challenges for the industry in separating forced labor versus illegal goods.
However, CBP says it is the responsibility of American companies to ensure that they do not import products made by forced labor.
“These companies have a real responsibility to ensure that they act promptly because they have already been notified. There is no uncertainty there,” said Mark Morgan, senior executive at CBP.
While Wednesday’s order lacks regional constraints, it will have a huge impact on Xinjiang’s production and construction on the region and the cotton industry, Cuccinelli said.
He says regional orders are still “on the table” but the agency wants to ensure it is useful and operational before moving forward.
CNN’s Nectar Gan, Ben Westcott and James Griffiths contributed to this report.