On April 30, 2024, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (“CECC”) held a hearing entitled Factories and Fraud in the PRC: How Human Rights Violations Make Reliable Audits Impossible,” in which expert witnesses[1] testified that it was impossible to conduct reliable social compliance audits not only in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (“XUAR”), but throughout the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”).

The witnesses asserted that supplier audits conducted in the XUAR are unreliable, as the Chinese government obfuscates forced labor practices and criminalizes the investigation of such practices as a matter of policy. The discussion touched on the illustrative example of an audit conducted by Loening GmbH on a Volkswagen joint venture in the XUAR, which found no indication of forced labor at the site, despite the region’s widely-acknowledged state-sponsored forced labor programs. Although several senior staff at Loening disavowed the audit results and resigned, American index provider MSCI Inc. removed Volkswagen’s red flag” status based on the audit. This underscores the broader concern beyond the unreliable nature of social compliance audits conducted in XUAR and highlights the sustainable sourcing certification agencies and indexing organizations that rely on and legitimize those audits, notwithstanding these deficiencies.

The witnesses emphasized, however, that social compliance audits elsewhere in the PRC – even outside of the XUAR – are still inherently unreliable. They noted the challenges in tracking the destinations of labor transfers outside of the XUAR and that the labor transfer program is expanding. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (“UFLPA”) prohibits the importation of goods manufactured wholly or in part with forced labor in the PRC. This includes not only goods manufactured in the XUAR, but also goods manufactured in the PRC outside the XUAR with forced labor, including forced labor facilitated by means of labor transfer programs. Witnesses noted that the lack of independent worker organizations in the PRC makes properly assessing labor conditions more difficult, and that it is typical for managers to prepare facilities for an audit by creating fake time sheets and pressuring workers to provide inaccurate information. The witnesses stressed that off-site worker interviews are essential in reliable social compliance audits, but noted that this is rarely possible in the PRC.

General critiques of social compliance audits are not new, but any attempt to utilize such audits in an environment of state-sponsored forced labor exacerbates the approach’s deficiencies. The International Labor Organization (“ILO”) – along with much of the international community – seems to have acknowledged as much. In the ILO’s February 2024 update to their Hard to see, harder to count” handbook on identifying forced labor, the organization includes for the first time an entire section on state-sponsored forced labor. In this context, the ILO’s pre-eminent handbook on identifying forced labor now formally recognizes that large-scale labour transfers frequently involve elements of compulsory labour as a means of political coercion and education’ and compulsory labour as a means of racial, national, social or religious discrimination.’ Much like the evidence gathering that a reliable social compliance audit would seek to incorporate, the ILO notes that “[u]ndertaking research on state-imposed forced labour poses a number of unique practical challenges. As the State itself imposes this category of forced labour, States may have little incentive to collaborate with or facilitate the work of researchers wishing to shed light on it. Information access can be problematic.”

In short, companies that rely on social compliance audits conducted in the PRC – including, but not limited to, the XUAR – should not presume the accuracy of such audits as a factual matter, much less that they accurately identify forced labor trade enforcement risks under the UFLPA and related laws. There is certainly a role for both social compliance audits and certifications to help verify supply chains are free of forced labor, but companies should consider a more holistic approach and be cognizant of the challenges posed by state-sponsored forced labor, in particular. Please reach out to a Kelley Drye attorney if you have concerns about your supply chain and how your company could be impacted.

[1] The expert witnesses included: Thea Lee (Undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor), Scott Nova (Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium), Dr. Adrian Zenz (Senior Fellow and Director in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation), and Jim Wormington (Senior Research and Advocate on Corporate Accountability at Human Rights Watch).

Tags: China, UFLPA