Dominic Raab is to address concerns over UK complicity in the use of forced labour in China’s Xinjiang province with more requirements on companies that buy goods there and possible sanctions on Chinese officials believed to be instrumental in the abuse.
Proposals released by the foreign secretary this week could include fines if companies fail to meet commitments to show due diligence in their supply chains. A proposal for a total ban on cotton from the province is thought not to be feasible.
The measures due to be announced by Raab and the trade secretary, Liz Truss, in the Commons on Wednesday come as a Conservative party human rights commission (CPHRC) backed by former Tory foreign secretaries prepare to demand the government do more to challenge China.
The Foreign Office does not regard its supply chain measures as representing a definitive new government stance on British-Chinese relations, and will steer clear of proposing sanctions against officials involved in the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.
China, however, will resent suggestions that it allows the use of forced labour. China’s outgoing ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, said last week that relations between the two countries “depend on whether the UK sees China as a partner or a rival, respects China’s core interests and major concerns, and abides by the basic norms governing international relations, including non-interference in each other’s internal affairs”.
“The ball is in the court of the UK side,” he said.
The CPHRC will claim forced labour is rife in Xinjiang province, which supplies nearly a quarter of the world’s cotton. The Chinese government has long denied the claims, insisting that camps for workers are “vocational training schools” and factories are part of a huge, and voluntary, poverty alleviation scheme.
Ministers are expected to extend the number of organisations subject to reporting obligations under the Modern Slavery Act (MSA); introduce binding rules on the content, timing and publication of modern slavery statements; and propose a single enforcement body to oversee MSA compliance. Limited financial or civil penalties for organisations that fail to comply are also being considered.
As many as five officials were being considered for Magnitsky sanctions, which target those involved in human rights abuses. The Foreign Office refuses to discuss who may soon be subject to sanctions in advance.
A Foreign Office spokesman said: “Our approach to China is rooted in our values and interests. However, where we have concerns, we raise them and hold China to account. We have done this consistently over the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.”
Rights groups say Xinjiang’s Uighur minority are being persecuted and recruited for forced labour. Photographic evidence suggests many of the camps do contain factories.
Two Commons select committees are investigating the issue of forced labour, showing the degree of concern. As public awareness grows, many fashion brands are increasingly fearful they will be revealed to be unwittingly and indirectly sourcing cotton products from the region in China’s far west, and have been scrambling to make commitments about their supply chains.
Raab will also set out his opposition to a Lords all-party amendment giving UK courts a right to declare if countries are committing genocide. A group of Conservative backbench MPs are supporting an amendment passed in the Lords that calls for the UK not to strike bilateral trade deals, including with China, if a British high court makes a preliminary assessment that the country has committed or is committing genocide.
The amendment has the backing of Iain Duncan Smithand the Labour human rights barrister Helena Kennedy. The government opposes the measure on the grounds that determination of genocide is for international courts.