Andrew Forrest’s philanthropic arm has publicly condemned the “forced labour and human rights abuses against the Uighur population”, as Human Rights Watch made a rare call for Australia to adopt targeted measures against China to halt imports linked to forced labour.
Forrest has previously been criticised for his refusal to condemn Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur minority despite funding a highly public campaign against modern-day slavery and forced labour.
His Fortescue Metals Group derives huge profits from Chinese demand which has underpinned recent increases to iron ore prices. It’s helped Fortescue secure a $1.2bn net profit in December alone.
Last year, Uighur community leaders told Crikey that Forrest was at a “crossroads” on the issue and needed to “decide whether he takes a moral and ethical stand on this and on what he supposedly stands for”.
On Monday, in a submission on senator Rex Patrick’s bill to ban imports linked to Uighur forced labour, Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation and its Walk Free anti-slavery campaign issued a public condemnation of China’s treatment of the Uighur minority.
The submission called on Australia to block the import of goods “made with forced labour in China”.
“Walk Free acknowledges and condemns forced labour and human rights abuses against the Uighur population and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region,” the submission states. “Action to prevent the importation of goods made with forced labour in China would support Australia in meeting its international obligations to prevent modern slavery.”
The submission, though, goes on to argue that the use of forced labour is not limited only to China. It recommends a change of wording to Patrick’s bill to ban imports from all countries with forced labour, not just China.
That approach mirrors one recommended by Human Rights Watch.
Rory Medcalf, the head of the Australian National University’s National Security College, described the submission as a “welcome development”.
“I look forward to seeing it reflected in Andrew Forrest’s personal characterisation of the behaviour of the Chinese state,” he told Guardian Australia.
Forrest courted controversy last year by inviting China’s Victorian consul general, Long Zhou, to a press conference on Covid-19 testing with the federal health minister, Greg Hunt. He has consistently heaped praise on China for its response and assistance to Australia.
The scale of the forced labour problem in Xinjiang has been proven time and again. Last year, the Center for Global Policy released research suggesting half a million people from ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang have been coerced into picking cotton.
That report came after the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified a series of factories linked to a program of forced labour involving 80,000 Uighurs in Xinjiang, some of whom were shipped far from their homes to factories across China between 2017 and 2019.
That report allowed the Guardian to establish that face masks manufactured at a Chinese factory using allegedly coerced Uighur labour were being sold in Australia.
In 2019, the ABC revealed that six Australian brands – Target, Cotton On, Jeanswest, Dangerfield, Ikea and H&M – sourced cotton from Xinjiang.
Cotton On and Target subsequently changed their supply chains due to human rights concerns, while Jeanswest conducted an internal inquiry and said it found no evidence of cotton from Xinjiang. Ikea and Dangerfield said they did source cotton from Xinjiang but were not aware of any forced labour.
Despite the mounting evidence, Australia remains a laggard on the issue.
The United States has banned all cotton and tomato imports from Xinjiang, given the high risk of forced labour, and is contemplating introducing a requirement that other importers working in the region prove their goods are free of forced labour.
The United Kingdom and Canada took coordinated steps last month to help their businesses avoid complicity in Xinjiang abuses.
In its submission on the Patrick bill, Human Rights Watch urged Australia to take targeted steps against China to stop the import of goods linked to Xinjiang forced labour.
The group wants Australia to designate Xinjiang as an area of high risk for forced labour. Human Rights Watch says Australia should follow the US and introduce a presumption that all goods from Xinjiang are tainted by forced labour and shift the onus to importers to prove their supply chains are slavery-free.
Human Rights Watch also wants the language in Patrick’s bill to be changed to ban all goods associated with forced labour from import, not just China.
Human Rights Watch researcher Sophie McNeill said the Australian government’s rhetoric on the situation in Xinjiang is, so far at least, not matched by concrete steps on the issue of forced labour.
“This isn’t being talked about enough,” McNeill told the Guardian. “We’re seeing steps being taken by the US, the UK, and Canada. There’s a lot of talk about China and Australia, but not enough action to take concrete measures that could stop our businesses being complicit in, and profiting from, human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.”
Patrick told the Guardian he understands the positions of Human Rights Watch and Walk Free but said the wording change they sought would make it more difficult to pass the bill through parliament.
“Perfect can be the enemy of the good,” he said.
“There is a wave of support building, not just in Australia but around the world, in relation to the Uighurs’ plight, and I think this wave of support that gives this bill some chance of getting through the parliament.”