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A cotton picker works in the field in Hami in northwest China's Xinjiang region on Oct. 09, 2020.The Associated Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending his government’s record in barring imports of goods from China made with forced labour even though online retailers are still selling Canadians goods from the Asian country’s western Xinjiang region that critics say are almost certainly produced under coercion.

As The Globe and Mail reported this week, Canadians can purchase bath towels, quilts and clothes through online retailers such as Amazon and eBay that are advertised as made with cotton from China’s Xinjiang region, a crop that human-rights activists and academics say should be assumed to be the product of forced labour.

Critics say the ease with which consumers can purchase Xinjiang cotton products calls into question the commitment countries such as Canada have made to stop imports of goods made with forced labour.

Asked about the wide range of Xinjiang cotton goods being offered for sale to Canadians through online retailers, Mr. Trudeau on Monday insisted his government has taken concrete measures to stop imports of products made with forced labour.

“We have acted,” he said during a press conference with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “We have acted in a way that is giving extra support and ability for Canadian companies to ensure they are not being involved in questionable supply chains over there.”

Mr. Trudeau added: “We want to help companies to protect themselves from being involved in the exploitation going on there.”

A United Nations panel has estimated that a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been forced into centres for political indoctrination and training, measures China has said are necessary to fight extremism. Evidence of coerced labour in Xinjiang comes from numerous sources, including Muslims who have been compelled to work in factories as well as colocation of industrial parks with prisons and training centres surrounded by electric fencing.

Canada signed a new trade deal as part of the 2018 renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement where it vowed to stop the importation of products made from forced labour. It enacted this prohibition in mid-2020 and in early 2021 announced it would be cracking down on such goods from China.

The measures Canada announced in January include: prohibiting the import of goods produced wholly or in part by forced labour; requiring Canadian companies doing business in the region to certify that they’re not knowingly sourcing products or services from a supplier implicated in forced labour or other human-rights violations; and commissioning a study to determine the extent that Canada’s supply chains are tied to forced labour.

Mehmet Tohti, the Ottawa-based executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said there are too many loopholes in Canada’s efforts. Foreign shippers with no ties to Canada aren’t bound by the Canadian government’s measures. Unbranded goods or items marked as unfinished products can slip through.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said Canada must ban all tomato and cotton imports from China’s Xinjiang region because it’s impossible to expect the Canada Border Services Agency to determine whether incoming shipments are products of forced labour.

Mr. Chong pointed to the United States, which earlier this year enacted a prohibition against imports of goods made with cotton or tomatoes from Xinjiang. The ban, which allows U.S. customs officials to stop any shipments they suspect originated in Xinjiang, also applies to products processed or manufactured in third countries.

Mr. Tohti also endorsed the United States’ “reverse onus” ban where categories of goods from Xinjiang are banned unless importers can prove they are not tainted by forced labour. “Uyghur forced labour is a deeply rooted systemic problem that penetrates every step of processes: cultivating land, irrigation, planting, picking, transporting and manufacturing.”

More than 80 per cent of China’s cotton originates in Xinjiang, as does about 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the world’s tomatoes. Darren Byler, an academic who begins as an assistant professor of international studies at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University this summer, has conducted research on Xinjiang for the past decade, including two years in the region. He said there is a high likelihood that cotton products and tomato products from Xinjiang use coercive labour somewhere in their supply chain.

Separately, Mr. Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, told reporters that the United Nations is holding serious negotiations with China on gaining unfettered access to the Xinjiang region to investigate reports that Uyghurs are being persecuted.

With a report from Reuters

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