The Biden administration says it will talk with the Morrison government about tackling China’s “human and labour rights abuses”, as the United States offered qualified support for a new Australian bill to ban imports from the Xinjiang region.
The signal from Washington comes as an anti-slavery group argues Australia’s existing laws against modern slavery are not strong enough to address “state-sanctioned forced labour in Xinjiang province”.
An analysis of modern slavery disclosure statements required under the existing laws shows just three Australian companies have outlined specific action to deal with risks in clothing sourced from Xinjiang, according to the group Be Slavery Free.
The bill, proposed by the South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick, would prohibit the importation into Australia of goods from Xinjiang province “as well as goods from other parts of China that are produced by using forced labour”.
The sweeping nature of the proposed Xinjiang ban goes beyond actions announced by the US and other western countries to date.
In a submission to a Senate inquiry into Patrick’s proposed legislation, the US state department backed the overall aims: “We support the goals of the draft bill.”
The submission – sent about two weeks after Joe Biden took office – pointed to Washington’s own recent steps to restrict imports, including a Trump administration-issued customs order requiring the detention of all cotton and tomato products originating from Xinjiang.
“We look forward to working with Australia to ensure global trade in cotton and other products produced without the use of forced labor proceeds unhindered,” Sung Kim, an acting assistant secretary of state, said in a letter dated 5 February.
“Communication and coordination on these trade issues should continue as we advance our shared goals of addressing human and labor rights abuses.”
The Australian government said last month it was “closely monitoring” the actions other countries were taking, as the United Kingdom and Canada also rolled out new actions targeting imports from Xinjiang.