Ireland urged to ban imports of cotton produced using ‘forced labour’ in China

Uighur people made to work in factories and prisons in Xinjiang which export textiles to international markets, rights groups say

The Revenue Commissioners and the Irish customs authorities are obliged by law to ban cotton imports from China which, it is claimed, are being produced using forced labour, rights groups have said.

In a submission to the Revenue, two groups say they will refer the issue to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg if the Revenue does not impose such a ban. They plan to seek a ruling that would “re-write the relationship between retail stores and goods produced through forced labour” across the EU.

“The status quo is that we are open for business for goods produced against a backdrop of crimes against humanity and forced labour,” said Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of the Global Legal Action Network (Glan), which has offices in Galway and London. “Retail stores are selling these goods in the full knowledge of what is going on” in Xinjiang.

The effort to have a ban imposed on cotton imports that may be linked to the use of forced labour in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, is being taken by Glan and the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC).


The US has already imposed restrictions on all imports from Xinjiang whereby there is a presumption that goods from the region have been produced with forced labour, unless the contrary can be proven.

The Beijing regime launched a “strike hard” policy in Xinjiang in 2014 in an effort to target what is said was terrorism and extremism. The province is home to the Uighur and other Turkic ethnic groups, who are largely Muslim.

In August, the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights published a report on the extensive network of camps that have been been put in place by the Chineses authories in Xinjiang. It said “the extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of the Uighur and predominantly Muslim groups... may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity”.

As well as writing to the Revenue, and seeking a reply within one month, Glan and WUC are also seeking to have a ban imposed by the UK authorities. Having received a negative response to their submission for such a ban in 2020, a court hearing is scheduled in London for later this month where the decision not to impose a ban is to be challenged.

If the request is rejected by the Irish authorities, Mr Ó Cuinn said, the High Court will be asked for a judicial review of the decision and to immediately request a view from the Luxembourg court as to EU law on the matter.

In the letter to the Revenue, the groups argue that EU and international law explicitly recognise the prohibition of slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour as a fundamental human right, and that Ireland is obliged to apply its import laws in a manner that respects that prohibition.

China is the world’s largest producer of cotton, accounting for approximately 20 per cent of the annual total, with more than 80 per cent of this coming from Xinjiang.

The government crackdown in Xinjiang has seen the construction of an extensive network of what the authorities there describe as “vocational education camps” and, the Revenue has been told, the camp network is “intimately linked” to the regions cotton industry.

“Uighurs are forced to work in factories and prisons in the region – which export products, particularly textiles – to international markets, including Ireland,” the Revenue has been told.

Mr Ó Cuinn said the importation of cotton made with forced labour is contrary to the Foreign Prison Made Goods Act of 1897, which is law both here and in the UK. In the action due to be heard later this month in London, the argument will also been made that the importation of Xinjiang cotton is an offence under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2022.

The court will hear argument that Xinjiang cotton is “criminal property” because it is obtained as the result of the crimes of forced labour and crimes against humanity. Therefore, any UK person who knowingly (or with suspicion) acquires it is committing a money laundering offence.

The London hearing will be the first time an Uighur claimant group will be represented in a foreign courtroom. WUC is a non-governmental organisation that strives to promote democracy, human rights and freedom for the Uighur people through peaceful, nonviolent, and democratic means.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent