The members of Congress behind the law that combats the import of goods produced by Uyghur forced labor are warning that some importers are taking advantage of a loophole intended to avoid scrutiny of the products that they’re bringing into the U.S. — and that increasingly popular Chinese e-commerce apps might facilitate breaches of the law.
The group of senators and House members — Representatives Chris Smith and Jim McGovern, and Senators Jeff Merkley and Marco Rubio — sounded the alarm in a letter today to the Department of Homeland Security, in their capacity as leaders of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
“Despite the welcome introduction of the new [Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act] Statistics Dashboard, we remain concerned that Congress lacks sufficient information and transparency to accurately assess whether implementation of the law comports with congressional intent,” the lawmakers wrote, in a letter addressed today to Robert Silvers, DHS’s under secretary for strategy policy and plans.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which Congress passed at the end of 2021, applies to all imports from China’s Xinjiang region with the assumption that they were produced using forced labor and are therefore inadmissible. The law followed well-documented evidence of a Chinese Communist Party-orchestrated forced-labor campaign that involves enslaving Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Those atrocities have been recognized by the U.S. and other governments, the U.N., and numerous human-rights groups.
While Customs and Border Patrol, which is tasked with implementing the law, says it has blocked forced-labor-tainted imports worth hundreds of millions of dollars under the law, lawmakers have previously warned that importers are taking advantage of a workarounds to circumvent the prohibition on those imports.
One newly identified loophole involves the popular Chinese e-commerce apps TEMU — which has been downloaded at least 33 million times since its launch in the U.S. — and Shein, another popular app.
The lawmakers said that current rules allow “vendors to send materials without having to report basic data, such as country-of-origin and manufacturer, if they claim that the value is under $800.” They requested further information about how CBP treats the Uyghur forced-labor law with regard to the ascendant Chinese shopping apps, referring to TEMU’s purchase of several Superbowl ads as an indication of its rapid U.S. scale-up effort.
“The fact that the Google Play Store recently suspended the app of TEMU’s Chinese parent company Pinduoduo (PPD) — citing security concerns about malware — only makes a concerted response to TEMU based imports all the more urgent,” they wrote.
While security concerns surrounding TikTok have claimed the spotlight, members of Congress are viewing a broader crackdown on Chinese apps. One bill, the RESTRICT Act, would codify a Trump-era executive order granting the Commerce secretary powers to implement measures to mitigate the risks raised by apps with ties to foreign adversaries of the U.S.
The CECC lawmakers also addressed a loophole that they’d previously identified, writing that some importers whose shipments are initially impounded have simply claimed that the forced-labor law doesn’t apply and received an “applicability review” from CBP — creating a workaround that doesn’t require reports to Congress. “Such reviews seem to skirt the intent of UFLPA, which already gives importers the opportunity to rebut CBP’s detainment orders,” they wrote today.
The lawmakers further alleged that importers “have had cargo released, even though CBP initially stopped it because of evidence of a link to the forced labor of Uyghurs outside” of Xinjiang. They also said that close to 300 shipments were stopped but later released — merely because the importer claimed that the Uyghur forced-labor law didn’t apply.
They also outlined a series of other enforcement issues, including shipments through third countries and the enforcement of forced-labor prohibitions under the U.S.–Mexico–Canada agreement.
The CECC intends to empower CBP and the DHS’s forced-labor enforcement task force so that they can be “at the forefront of this critical fight against modern slavery,” the lawmakers wrote.
After publication, a DHS spokesperson responded to National Review’s request to comment with a lengthy statement defending the department’s record, describing enforcement of the Uyghur forced-labor law as a top priority, and welcoming Congress’s support and input on the matter.
“DHS’s swift and unprecedented action to enforce the UFLPA has resulted in successful implementation in record time ahead of ambitious statutory deadlines,” this person said. “At DHS, we stand on the front line to make sure goods made in whole or in part with forced labor from Xinjiang province, or anywhere else in the world, do not enter the U.S. economy.”
The commission will hold a hearing on DHS’s implementation of the Uyghur forced-labor law on April 18.