At a time when China continues to impose tariffs on Australian imports, a push to ban imports linked to Uyghur labour in China is continuing in Australia.
- Uyghurs in Australia are afraid for their relatives still living in China
- A bill to ban exports from the region using slave labour is gaining traction
- However, experts warn China could retaliate with further trade sanctions against Australia
Yusuf Husein’s youngest children may never know their grandfather, uncles, aunts or cousins living in China.
“I worry about my dad — he is more than 85 years old; my mother is not there, so how is his situation? He’s an old man,” he said.
Mr Husein had been in regular contact with his siblings and his father from his home in Adelaide until their phones went silent in 2017.
Despite appealing to both the Australian and Chinese governments, he has not heard from his family since.
They are part of the Uyghur Muslim minority living in China’s Xinjiang province.
Humanitarian groups say around the time his family disappeared, the Chinese Communist Party began detaining and forcibly indoctrinating Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups.
A recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) also found evidence Uyghurs in China were being forced to work in factories supplying the globe’s insatiable appetite for Chinese-made products.
Ramila Chanisheff from the Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women’s Association said when she read the report, she finally felt there was something she could do in Australia to help.
“A report that came out from ASPI showed that over 80 brands have their supply chains or buy products made [using Uyghur forced labour] in whole or in part— so we thought this is something that we need to target and ensure that these products do not come onto Australian shores,” she said.
The Chinese Government has always denied Uyghur human rights abuses, and maintains Uyghur workers are well paid.
‘DNA-style tech’ could help identify imports
Following similar moves by the US, Canada and the UK, South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick is building cross-party support in Federal Parliament for a bill to make importing any products made using slave labour illegal.
Senator Patrick said customs would be empowered to search for, and confiscate, items with the threat of fines or a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail in extreme cases.
“There are a number of organisations that are tracking the supply chains associated with slave labour,” Senator Patrick said.
“There is also DNA-style technology that can alert customs to an area where products have come from.”
He said while some state governments could be impacted, Australian companies would benefit in the long term.
“The Western Australian Government and the Victorian Government using slave labour in their railway projects, that’s unacceptable,” he said.
“There’s also the advantage that Australian companies will no longer have to compete with imported products that are made from slave labour.
“The senate committee identified a number of products but actually focused on cotton that’s coming from China that may well be the first target of our customs force if this bill were passed.”
Bill building cross-party support
Senator Patrick says the private member’s bill is gathering support from all sides of the political spectrum, including from Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz.
While the federal government’s position in relation to the bill has not been formalised, Senator Abetz said he believed there was growing pressure to support it.
“There is a movement around the world to say that this sort of behaviour needs to stop, irrespective of from where it emanates and so I’m heartened by the fact that other freedom-loving countries of the world are going down the track,” he said.
Reform could lead to economic sanctions against Australia
Naoise McDonagh from the University of Adelaide’s Institute for International Trade said the move had the potential to expose Australian industries to further Chinese trade sanctions.
“I think then there’s going to be substantially added friction to an already very unstable relationship.
“We don’t seem to have reached the bottom of that relationship breakdown.”
He said the Chinese government may move to extend or broaden existing measures to disrupt Australian exports from wine, barley, timber and red meat to other industries.
“Beijing may decide to target some sectors where it can get those goods elsewhere,” he said.
He said the Chinese government had also used a tactic known as “grey zoning” on European Union companies after they imposed sanctions on China in relation to their treatment of Uyghurs.
“This involved state-sanctioned boycotts, and also other internet sites being shut down so customers couldn’t access them,” he said.
“Apparently, even mapping systems would not show [where some] stores were.”
But Dr McDonagh said if democratic countries worked together, the ability for China to target individual countries diminished.
“If those countries work together, if they share information, they draw up lists of high-risk firms or high-risk regions together, then it’s much more difficult for any particular country to be singled out,” he said.