Human-Rights Advocates Urge Companies: Cut Ties to Products Made by Prisoners of Conscience in China

Speakers at the 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit detailed how some profit from egregious human-rights violations.

Top row: Uyghur farmers pick cotton by hand in a field on the outskirts of Qiemo, China, on Oct. 10, 2017. Bottom row: L to R: Shi Minglei and Jewher Ilham speak out against forced labor in China at the 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington.
Top row: Uyghur farmers pick cotton by hand in a field on the outskirts of Qiemo, China, on Oct. 10, 2017. Bottom row: L to R: Shi Minglei and Jewher Ilham speak out against forced labor in China at the 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit in Washington. (photo: rweisswald/Shutterstock; Lauretta Brown/National Catholic Register)

WASHINGTON — A pair of work gloves from Home Depot does not ordinarily evoke strong emotion, but one of the most poignant images at last week’s 2023 International Religious Freedom Summit was a woman clutching a pair of Milwaukee Tool gloves and holding back tears.

She described the sight of these gloves in Home Depot as sending her into “a panic” and breaking her heart.

Shi Minglei’s reaction to these gloves is due to a report from Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-che that they are produced in the Hunan province of China at Chishan Prison, where Minglei’s husband, human-rights lawyer Cheng Yuan, has been detained for three years.

During a Religious Freedom Summit panel, Minglei and other advocates for persecuted Chinese Christians and Uyghurs repeatedly highlighted U.S. market ties to the exploitation of religious minorities.

At the panel on “Corporate Accountability for People of Faith in China’s Forced Labor System,” Minglei described her husband, a Christian, as speaking out on behalf of China’s disadvantaged people and as “one of the leading advocates working on ending the Chinese government’s one-child policy.”

Minglei and her then-3-year-old daughter were able to escape house arrest in 2021 and come to the U.S. with the help of China Aid, a Christian human-rights non-governmental organization focused on religious freedom in China. Yuan was secretly sentenced, tortured and forced to work under harsh conditions in Chishan Prison. “He was put into solitary confinement for three months, experienced food deprivation, physical and mental abuse,” she said. Prisoners work 13 to 15 hour days, are beaten if they do not meet a quota, and are not given any protective equipment.

Minglei described wrestling with the thought of speaking up and confronting Milwaukee Tool as well as the retailers that sell their products. She said that after two weeks of prayer and panic, “a voice told me, “No, that’s not right. You are Christian. You should pursue God’s justice.’” She said she felt that God was telling her, “Just follow me. I will strengthen you, I will protect you, and I will comfort you.”

She launched a petition in November, which currently has 1,017 signatures, calling on Milwaukee Tool to “immediately cease production at Chishan Prison and recall all products produced there” and calling on “retailers that sell Milwaukee Tools’ products to immediately cease sales.” The petition is also asking U.S. Customs and Border Protection to “take measures to ensure that these gloves, produced by slave labor, do not enter the United States, as per Art. 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930.”

Milwaukee Tool denied the report’s allegations in a December response, saying the company has “strict policies and procedures in place to ensure that no authorized Milwaukee Tool products are manufactured by using forced labor.”

Forced-Labor Prevention

Bob Fu, president of China Aid, reminded those gathered at the summit that “there are few, if any, aspects of our lives left untouched by China’s supply chain.” But, unfortunately, he added, many everyday clothing items and smartphones “may have been made by a member of a Chinese religious minority forced to work in a prison factory.”

Fu praised the new federal Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), which came into effect last summer, calling it “the broadest import legislation in modern U.S. history targeting forced labor.”

The measure presumes “that the importation of any goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China, or produced by certain entities,” is prohibited due to being produced by forced labor. That presumption applies “unless the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) determines that the importer of record has complied with specified conditions and, by clear and convincing evidence, that the goods, wares, articles, or merchandise were not produced using forced labor.”

Since the act went into effect, CBP has seized around $1.3 billion in imports, according to Axios.

Jewher Ilham, a Uyghur human-rights activist, noted that “the Chinese government’s abuses of Uyghur and other Turkic and Muslim peoples have been deemed crimes against humanity by common human-rights organizations around the world.” The Trump administration declared China’s targeting of Uyghur Muslims a “genocide” in January 2021.

Ilham is the daughter of Uyghur scholar and economist Ilham Tohti, who is serving a life sentence in China after being arrested in 2014 for his criticism of the government’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. She noted that, “in 2019, the Uyghur region was the source of more than 20% of the global apparel industries cotton supply, which is the main component in clothes that we wear on a daily basis; and, in 2020, the Uyghur region produced 45% of the solar-grade polysilicon utilized globally in the production of solar corporations.”

Next Steps

Ilham is a member of the Coalition to End Forced Labor, which has “engaged with numerous brands and companies and retailers and … seen companies taking important steps towards exiting the Uyghur region,” despite the hesitancy of some companies “to speak publicly about their actions because of fear for losing their stores and partnerships or being retaliated against by the Chinese government.”

In light of the UFLPA, Ilhan said, the coalition is “calling on companies to apply the UFLPA standard throughout their operations around the world, not just in the U.S., to ensure other markets, like the EU, Japan, Australia, Canada, do not become a dumping ground for consumer goods made with Uyghur forced labor.”

“We need every world leader to refuse to allow companies operating within their borders to benefit from Uyghur forced labor, and we need every corporation to wake up to the consequences of these actions and clean up their supply chains,” she concluded. “We need to keep working on this issue together until every innocent Uyghur is free — I hope including my father.”