ATLANTA — Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been shopping online. It’s where American consumers can find fairly cheap clothes and beauty products.
But federal officials believe some of those products, including hair, come at an unacceptable cost from what they’ve identified as Chinese internment camps.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Nicole Carr found a Gwinnett County company that said it stopped dealing with another company facing detention orders for bringing synthetic hair made by forced labor into the country.
Multiple U.S. agencies put out a warning last month telling businesses that if they're importing from a specific region, they're likely buying products made on the backs , and maybe even the heads, of prisoners forced to work in labor camps.
The products are imported into the U.S. by way of companies like Duluth-based OS Hair Products, which is denying recent reports of their ties to the labor camps.
“We’re concerned with our business and our customers,” a company manager said, declining to appear on camera. “We could care less what’s out there. Because there’s quote unquote fake news all the time .”
In July, U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized large shipments of hair weaves from China for the second time in a year, issuing a rare detention order.
The summer shipment was made by a company called Lop County Meixin Hair Product. The shipment contained 13 tons of real hair worth $800,000 and believed to have been taken from some of the estimated 1.3 million people held prisoner in internment camps in China’s far west region of Xinjiang.
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The prisoners are mostly Muslim.
“When companies are buying goods because they seem like they’re lower price, a really great deal, I would recommend that they really look into why the goods are such a great deal,” said Ana Hinojosa with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
A similar detention order was placed on synthetic hair from Hetian Haolin Hair Accessories months earlier.
The Associated Press reported the manufacturer’s products were imported by two companies: I&I in Dallas and OS Hair in Duluth.
Supply chain records show that 170,000 pounds of synthetic hair made the trip from Xinjiang to the Georgia wholesaler before the exporter was flagged by customs for possible human rights violations.
Carr went to the Duluth company to ask them about the allegations.
“We have no direct relationship with anything illegal or camps or none of those activities,” a company manager told Carr.
The manager did not want to be on camera but told Carr that they’ve never been contacted by U.S. Customs, and the agency declined to offer specifics on the Georgia connection.
That manager did not deny that products ordered in recent years may be connected to those camps.
“We use an agent and it goes down and they use different factories. They subcontract whoever. There might have been something in the past but there’s nothing going on now,” the manager said.
“For a long time, the presumption about goods coming into the US, that they weren’t made with forced labor,” said Sophie Richardson with Human Rights Watch. “Now the presumption about goods coming to us from Xinjiang is that they have been made with forced labor, and it’s up to the companies to prove that they weren’t.”
In 2019, ABC News got a rare look into the route to those forced labor camps. Uighur Muslim citizens are detained in what the Chinese government dubs “re-education” camps — prisons that crack down on the practice of Islam — something the Chinese government defends as counterterrorism efforts.
Its foreign ministry denies reported sterilization efforts.
ABC News’ Bob Woodruff spoke with a former detainee who then testified in front of Congress.
“I just say, ‘Please, kill me,’” she said.
“You asked them to kill you?” Woodruff asked.
“Yes, please. I just said, ‘Please,’” she said.
“You would rather die than just keep going through this?” Woodruff asked.
“Yes,” she said.
The Chinese government strongly denies the detainee’s claims, although it specifically recognized her in a news conference – a rare move of acknowledgment.
U.S. lawmakers are currently exploring a ban on imports from Xinjiang unless there’s clear evidence that no forced labor was involved.
A bill introduced by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio points to several brands, including Costco, Nike, Coca-Cola and Adidas, as sources of forced labor.
Those rare detention orders that brought our attention to Duluth may not be so rare in the coming months.
“Do I expect there to be a lot more detentions? Absolutely. We continue to push forward these investigations and we take this issue very seriously,” Hinojosa said.
So what happens to the companies here in the U.S. that have their product seized because they came from these camps?
Carr found that there is a whole process to figure out how much they knew about the labor behind their products. CBP said that once a shipment is detained, a company has three months to submit a petition proving forced labor isn’t behind the product or that they didn’t know about it.
If the company is proven negligent, the government can bring a criminal case against the company.
Consumers can track importers and manufacturers flagged for selling product alleged to come from forced labor, by visiting the U.S. Labor Department website.
Cox Media Group