Are Chinese goods made by the forced labour of Uyghurs being imported into Canada?

Uyghur forced Labour Mehmet Tohti

An organization advocating for Uyghur rights has been granted intervener status in a legal case between the federal government and a refugee advocacy organization that is trying to stop goods suspected of being made with forced labour from entering Canada.

The Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project (URAP) will now be able to present legal arguments in the case initiated by another organization Canadians in Support of Refugees in Dire Need (CSRDN).

“It is really significant because we can be the voice of our people back home,” said URAP executive director Mehmet Tohti. “We can present the (reasons) why Canada should take measures to stop those products coming out of the region tainted by Uyghur forced labour.”

Tohti said it’s the first time a Uyghur advocacy group has been granted such standing in Canada.

Uyghurs are an ethnic minority mostly living in China’s western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). In recent years the Chinese Communist Party has reportedly forced more than one million Uyghurs into internment camps that Chinese officials insist are vocational training centres.

Those interned in the camps have reported physical, mental and sexual abuse, as well as cases of Uyghurs being used for forced labour. Some of those allegations were made in 2020 to a parliamentary subcommittee on international human rights in Ottawa.

The subcommittee concluded the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghurs amounted to genocide. China has denied committing human rights abuses.

The Star reported earlier this year that some goods flowing into Canada are made by Chinese companies that authorities in the United States allege are using forced Uyghur labour. Human rights groups have also raised concerns that Uyghurs are being relocated and forced to work in factories around China.

It wants the CBSA to block such items from entering Canada unless the importer can prove they were not made with forced labour. Canadian law prohibits the importation of goods made by forced labour, and gives the CBSA the authority to enforce it.

The border agency previously told CSRDN that it cannot enforce the terms of the ban on goods produced in just one region of another country.

CSRDN is currently waiting for a court date for a judge to hear its application.

The CBSA did not reply to a request from the Star seeking comment.

Sarah Teich, a lawyer representing URAP, said the intervener status means the organization can now bring legal arguments based on case law, international law or conventions “and also bring in the perspective of the Uyghur community which was, so far, absent from the case.”

Teich said how much impact the submissions have on the case may vary, but the organization has taken a clear position on the application.

“I hope this motivates Uyghur groups around the world to continue to get involved in these legal challenges and these legal cases,” she said. “A lot of the time, the law is the vehicle for which these types of changes are made.”

Last year, the federal government changed the Canada Customs Tariff to prevent companies from importing goods made with forced labour, but Tohti said little effective action has been taken. He hopes URAP’s involvement in the court application gets better results.

“We hope that it triggers some sort of concrete and tangible action in the Canadian government and the agency to clean up the Canadian market from forced labour products,” he said.