A trip to an Asian grocery store in the U.S. is like a tour of the Orient. Pickled mustard greens from Thailand, instant noodles from Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China, and packets of dried fungus and fruits — pack the shelves of any given Asian supermarket.

Some of these stores have come to the attention of human rights researchers.

A report released this week by Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, found markets in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and some online retailers in the U.S. continue to sell more than 70 brands of red dates grown and processed in Xinjiang, a region in China that’s been the focus of a U.S. law on forced labor.

In December, President Joe Biden signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA) into law. Enforcement of the law began in June.  U.S. products wholly or partially produced in China’s northwest region of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are prohibited from entering the U.S. unless the importer can prove with evidence, they weren’t made by forced labor.

“This includes goods produced in other parts of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] or in other countries that incorporate goods that were mined, produced, or manufactured in the XUAR or by entities on the UFLPA Entity List,” a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) representative told VOA.

Report on findings

The report, titled Fruits of Uyghur Forced Labor: Sanctioned Products on American Grocery Store Shelves, said that “U.S. food retailers and consumers risk complicity in forced labor and other atrocities” as long as red dates from Xinjiang remain on the shelves of U.S. stores.

“Between February and August 2022, we investigated a dozen international grocery stores in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and identified red date products sourced from East Turkistan at seven stores,” the report said. “We also examined online international grocery stores that ship red date products from the Uyghur Region to the D.C. area.”

Most Uyghurs prefer to call the Uyghur region East Turkistan instead of Xinjiang, the name given by the Chinese.

According to the report, U.S. online retailers including Amazon, eBay, and Walmart, sell red dates from Xinjiang.

“At least 15 U.S. companies import red date products for wholesale distribution to retailers, including Bloomington Import, Growland Inc., H&C Food Inc., OCM Globe Inc., and Tristar Food Wholesale Co., Inc,” the report said.

VOA reached out to companies including H&C Food Inc. and OCM Globe Inc., mentioned in the report, but has not received any responses.

The report’s authors said they tried to contact the stores and distributors named in the report but some of the emails bounced back. Others either did not respond directly or only confirmed receiving the correspondence.

Mukta Islam, a consumer in the state of Virginia which borders Washington, told VOA any business should be vigilant about whether the products are free of forced labor.

“Every business [is] supposed to support this law and do not sell … and return them (Xinjing dates),” Islam said.

The report’s author, Nuzigum Setiwaldi, used global, U.S., and China trade data to trace the red dates’ global supply chain.

“Twenty percent of the world’s red dates come from the Uyghur Region and are likely the products of forced labor,” Setiwaldi said. “Ten percent of the world’s red dates are directly tied to the XPCC (The Xinjiang Construction and Production Corps) and forced labor practices.”

The XPCC is a Chinese Communist Party corporate and paramilitary organization in Xinjiang. In 2020, the U.S. sanctioned the XPCC and other Chinese officials for their “connection to serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang,” including forced labor.

The cotton connection

According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project’s report, growing red dates in Xinjiang is directly linked to cotton production through the practice of intercropping, a method of agricultural production where two crops are grown simultaneously in the same field.

The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act specifically identifies cotton, tomatoes, and polysilicon from Xinjiang as high-priority sectors.

“The direct link between red date(s) and cotton production increases the likelihood that red date production is being tainted by Uyghur forced labor,” the report said.

The report continued, 2018 XPCC data showed “red date-cotton intercropping is the primary form of fruit-cotton intercropping with nearly 80% (1.6 million tons) of red dates produced on cotton farms in 2019.”

The U.S. accuses China of mistreating its Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim ethnic communities in Xinjiang, including the arbitrary detention of more than 1 million Uyghurs in re-education camps, forced labor, forced sterilization of women and torture.

On Wednesday, a U.N. report about human rights stated that Beijing’s labor schemes “involve elements of coercion” in Xinjiang, requiring clarification by Chinese authorities.

China’s response

Beijing has repeatedly denied the accusations and described the facilities as “vocational training schools” aimed to root out terrorist, extremist and separatist thoughts in people’s minds. China vehemently denies Uyghurs are forced into labor and said that the Chinese government implemented poverty alleviation programs to help Uyghurs.

“Some forces manipulate Xinjiang-related issues and fabricated the disinformation on ‘forced labor’ in Xinjiang. In essence, they are using human rights as a pretext to undermine Xinjiang’s prosperity and stability and contain China’s development and revitalization,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin at an August news conference.

Navigating US law

Setiwaldi said companies importing goods from Xinjiang, in order to comply with the UFLPA, should understand which products are at high risk of being made with Uyghur forced labor.

“U.S. companies have not fully mapped out their supply chains which makes it difficult for CBP to identify and trace goods made with Uyghur forced labor. Many products may be exported from mainland China or by intermediary suppliers outside of China that seem to have no links to the XPCC or even the Uyghur Region,” Setiwaldi told VOA.

According to CBP, the agency receives numerous allegations of forced labor from a variety of sources, including government partners, non-government organizations’ reports, media coverage, firsthand accounts and the general public.

“We will continue to use the resources at our disposal to evaluate these allegations and to identify and prevent goods made with forced labor from entering the U.S. commerce,” a CBP representative told VOA.

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