Home Affairs should look into supply chain technologies like blockchain: Committee

While not endorsing the Bill it was tasked to examine, a Senate Committee believes technology has potential in the fight against forced labour, particularly in relation to Xinjiang.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
Image: Getty Images

A Senate committee tasked at looking into the Customs Amendment (Banning Goods Produced By Uyghur Forced Labour) Bill 2020 put forward by independent Senator Rex Patrick has decided the Bill as presented is not the best way forward.

In its 14 recommendations, the committee said the Department of Home Affairs should establish a working group to "examine the role emerging technologies can play in tracing the geographical origin of products and raw materials". High up on that list of technologies is blockchain.

Among those called out by name were Bluenumber, which has a public blockchain that can be used to identify farmers, as well as New Zealand-based isotope tracking company Oritain, and a self-declared "supply chain social network" company in the form of Sourcemap.

The use of forced Uyghur labour is an issue the tech industry continues to wrestle with. In July 2020, the US added 11 Chinese companies onto its entity list for using forced Uyghur labour.

The March prior, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released a report that alleged the use of forced Uyghur labour in factories that were part of the supply chains of 83 global brands at the time.

The report said over a period of two years, 80,000 Uyghurs -- a Muslim Turkic minority from the far north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang -- were moved throughout the rest of China and into factories, often living beside the factory, where they undergo language and ideology training once work is over for the day.

Among those companies named were Amazon, Apple, Asus, Cisco, Dell, Google, Hitachi, HP, HTC, Huawei, Lenovo, LG, Microsoft, Mitsubishi, Nokia, Oppo, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Siemens, Sony, Toshiba, Vivo, Xiaomi, and ZTE.

The committee report said that although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has "consistently denied" Uyghur labour allegations, it did not view them as credible.

"The committee does not accept the CCP's characterisation of the situation in Xinjiang. It considers attempts to sow and perpetuate disinformation deeply concerning," it said.

"The fact that the People's Republic of China attacks those conducting research rather than the research itself demonstrates both the hollowness of the CCP's denials and its willingness to resort to bullying to perpetuate its false narratives."

Rather than focusing solely on Xinjiang, the committee said the Customs Act should be modified to prohibit imports of any goods made with forced labour from anywhere in the world, and that the US model of using "rebuttable presumptions for specific goods, companies and/or region" should be handed to Australian Border Force, and it should start with cotton from Xinjiang.

Border Force should also be resourced to conduct investigations into forced labour and customs data, such as that within the Integrated Cargo System, should be published online, it added.

"Effectively addressing the insidious problem of forced labour will require the efforts not only of government, but also civil society, industry groups, unions and business," the report said.

"A clear set of guidelines to this effect would assist businesses to undertake such due diligence and provide for the standardisation of due diligence actions across the board."

The committee added that Australia should: Work with Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States to have consistent policy on the issue; see whether a resolution on Xinjiang could in introduced at the next session of the United Nations; support the introduction of "Magnitsky-style legislation" to allow targeted sanctions in response to "gross human rights abuses"; introduce Commonwealth procurement rules that require diligence to be conducted to check for exposure to forced labour supply chains; and review its modern slavery laws.

The committee heard evidence that over 40 million people around the world are in some form of modern slavery, with almost 35 million in forced labour.

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