On July 19, the State Department released its 2022 Trafficking in Person (“TIP”) report.1 In the report, China was classified as a Tier 3 country, consistent with its 2021 ranking, and the worst ranking the Department can give. The 2022 TIP report has a special section discussing alleged forced labor in China, including in Belt and Road Initiative projects, demonstrating that the issue remains a priority for the Biden administration
Topics of Special Interest: Forced Labor
Before specific country narratives, the TIP report includes several articles on Topics of Special Interest. This year’s edition contains two articles related to China: Forced Labor: The Hidden Cost of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and Forced Labor and the Clean Energy Transition: Finding A Responsible Way Forward.
Forced Labor: The Hidden Cost of China’s Belt and Road Initiative focuses on the alleged use of forced labor in Belt and Road initiative projects around the world, which it states involves:
deceptive recruitment into debt bondage, arbitrary wage garnishing or withholding, contract irregularities, confiscation of travel and identity documentation, forced overtime, and resignation penalties, as well as intimidation and threats, physical violence, denial of access to urgent medical care, poor working and living conditions, restricted freedom of movement and communication, and retaliation for reported abuses.2
After describing a few examples of what the report believes to be exploited laborers in Belt and Road Initiative projects, the Department accuses China of “not exercis[ing] sufficient oversight of recruitment channels, contracts, or labor conditions to prevent abuses, and PRC diplomatic services have routinely failed to identify or assist those exploited within the program.”3 It called on countries that host Belt and Road Initiative projects to scrutinize local recruitment channels and visit work sites to ensure that human rights are upheld on the project.4 Note that in recent years, US Customs and Border Protection has taken enforcement actions to prohibit certain imports believed to be tainted by the above-cited concerns from Southeast Asia, without any apparent ties to China. Nevertheless, the report takes issue with what might be viewed as a “turn a blind eye” approach.
In Forced Labor and the Clean Energy Transition: Finding A Responsible Way Forward, the State Department focused on supply chains critical for green energy technologies, including solar photovoltaic modules and electric vehicle batteries. The article focuses on cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and silica production in China as supply chains of concern for these products. Looking at China specifically, the report states that the “solar products and input at nearly every step of the production process in the PRC, from raw silicon material mining to final solar module assembly, are linked to known or probable forced labor programs.”5 The article urges companies involved in the green energy industry to conduct due diligence on their supply chains to ensure their products are not made with forced labor, and provides resources for companies looking to conduct due diligence for forced labor in their supply chains.
China Country Report
The report lists China as a Tier 3 country, the lowest possible designation it can give in the TIP report, continuing a trend since 2017. On the positive side, the report acknowledged that China “took some steps to address trafficking” concerns. However, consistent with its focus on forced labor issues, the country report (1) criticized China for not effectively screening migrant worker populations, and (2) in the trafficking profile and discussion of prevention efforts, discussed issues related to the Belt and Road Initiative and alleged use of forced labor in Xinjiang, as previewed in the Topics of Special Interest section.
With respect to international trade, US law generally prohibits the importation of any goods made with forced labor, the enforcement of which has tightened significantly since 2016. In recent years, the US has voiced strong concerns about what it believes to be serious forced labor issues related to China, such as those described above, culminating in the passage of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act late last year. The TIP report’s focus on forced labor is yet another indicator that the US will continue to prioritize border enforcement to prevent imports raising forced labor concerns and the trade community should take appropriate actions to manage the associated supply chain risks. Of particular note, certain traditional forced labor issues related to the Southeast Asia markets, which are monitored by human rights organizations on a long-term basis and have triggered US enforcement actions, may be subject to even stricter scrutiny for the reasons discussed above.
1 U.S. Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report (July 2022), https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/22-00757-TIP-REPORT_072822-inaccessible.pdf (hereinafter TIP Report).