Uyghur Forced Labor Expert Appointed to DHS

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Laura Murphy, until recently a professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University’s Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice, is trading her position for a new one.

Writing on her LinkedIn page this week, Murphy announced that she‘ll be taking a “leave of absence/career break” while serving as a policy advisor to Robert P. Silvers, undersecretary of the Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, with a focus on forced labor policy and enforcement.

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Murphy has been a perennial thorn in the sides of fashion companies desperate to shake off allegations of forced labor, particularly in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Her seminal work, which has drawn links between some of the industry’s biggest names to suppliers that traffic in cotton from the hot-button region, has been frequently cited by the likes of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, a.k.a. the CORE, as it justifies its investigations into the Canadian subsidiaries of Hugo Boss, Levi Strauss & Co., Nike, Ralph Lauren, Zara and others over their ties with companies flagged as using or benefiting from the persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups.

The New Orleans resident’s research has so far identified 55,000 companies operating in Xinjiang, 3,300 of which are involved in textiles. Because of an export strategy that essentially “launders” cotton, Murphy found, brands from American Eagle to Uniqlo are at risk of using cotton from Xinjiang despite having published statements attesting that they don’t source cotton, textiles or garments from the province.

At a hearing by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in April, Murphy said that the U.S. government needed to prioritize updating the Entity List, which restricts companies from doing business with those it names.

“Congress should be clear to FLETF that it must presume that all state-sponsored labor transfers in the Uyghur region constitute forced labor and that FLETF should add any company engaged in coerced transfers of labor onto those lists,” Murphy said, using an acronym for the DHS-led interagency Forced Labor Enforcement Task Force. “These lists will assist importers in ensuring that they know which supplier to include from their sourcing.”

She also called for greater collaboration between countries to avoid “bifurcated supply chains” that allow companies to “sell clean products in the United States and turn around and pocket the proceeds of tainted forced labor products elsewhere.”

Last September, Murphy, who was previously director of the Modern Slavery Research Project at Loyola University, spoke on behalf of Domini Impact Investments at Nike’s annual meeting to urge the Just Do It company to suspend manufacturing in China until the U.S. government lifts or rescinds its advisory about the heightened risks for businesses with supply chain and investment links to Xinjiang.

“Nike says they do not source directly from the Uyghur region—that’s good news,” Murphy told Sourcing Journal at the time. “But forced labor-picked Xinjiang cotton is shipped all across China. Uyghur forced labor-spun yarn is shipped all across China. Uyghur forced labor-woven fabric is shipped all over China. Until apparel companies can show that their entire supply chains are free of Uyghur forced labor, there is [a] high risk that products made in China will be made with Uyghur forced labor.”

Shareholders rejected the resolution.

Murphy, who has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar Award recipient, a British Academy Visiting Fellow, and a John G. Medlin Fellow at the National Humanities Center, said that part of her new role will involve liaising with various stakeholders that are invested in stopping forced-labor-made goods from entering into the United States, as well as from circulating globally.

The work of the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice’s Forced Labour Lab will continue under new leadership—“details tba”—with a continued focus on forced labor in Xinjiang, she said. All of the team’s projects are “progressing full steam ahead.”

“I look forward to continuing to work with many of you in my new role,” Murphy added.