Ruth Ingram | Bitter Winter
The UK government has caved into pressure by campaigners determined to rid the National Health Service of forced labour
Facing the prospect of defeat over the next round of ping pong between the Lords and the Commons over an amendment to ensure that UK health services are not tainted by deals with “genocidal states,” government ministers have put a compromise deal on the table, not mentioning “genocide,” but guaranteeing the eradication of modern slavery and human trafficking from supply chains.
The new amendment went through without a whimper in the House of Commons this week, and despite the absence of the “G” word in the final draft, Health Minister Sajid Javid’s support was nevertheless hailed as a victory by Luke de Pulford, CEO of the anti-slavery foundation, Arise, whose joint campaign with Jewish, Uyghur, and a variety of anti-slavery groups has been fought vigorously since last year.
In an interview with Politico following the government’s announcement de Pulford said: “This is, by some distance, the biggest advance in modern slavery legislation since the Modern Slavery Act 2015. In fact, it’s much more significant in that it raises the bar massively for government procurement.”
Also speaking to Politico, Sajid Javid, without mentioning Xinjiang, Uyghurs or forced labour specifically, was confident that regulations could now be drawn up “setting out steps the NHS should take to assess the level of risk associated with individual suppliers, and the basis on which it should exclude them from a tendering process.”
“I want this to be a turning point in the UK’s mission to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in supply chains around the globe. As the biggest public procurer in the country, the NHS is well placed to spearhead this work,” said Javid.
Last year, following a similar nail biting back and forth between the two houses over banning trade with genocidal states, the anti-slavery and pro-Uyghur lobby lost narrowly by 300 to 318 votes. Their meagre “reward” in the form of piecemeal sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for atrocities in Xinjiang left campaigners vowing to continue their struggle.
Campaigners’ inability to force the government’s hand over its stubborn definition of genocide determination, which it insists can only be made by international courts, has launched a battle to halt the process of every bill to come before parliament unless it takes atrocities committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) into consideration.
Speaking to Politics Home, an in-house UK government publication before the February 2022 first round of a fight back at governmental indifference to Uyghur atrocities in China, de Pulford said, “Every single bill that [government] brings forward, will be a China bill until they reform their policy. Every single one. If they’re doing something on education, we’re going to amend it around China and education, if they bring something about health, we’ll amend it around health. We will keep going until the government reforms its policy.”
Celebrating a muted victory over this first round of a continuing struggle to force the government to face up to CCP atrocities, Rahima Mahmut, director of the World Uyghur Congress’ London office, praised Sajid Javid and thanked him for standing with her community. “Throughout this genocide, my people have rarely been offered meaningful action, but today we can say that those in power are listening to us and willing to help.”
She tempered the triumph however with her continued disappointment that UK government ministers still refuse to admit the genocide of her people, despite the overwhelming vote to the contrary from its own MPs a year ago. “This was a critical moment for my community. A year later I am still grateful and proud of everyone who made this happen,” she said. “But Uyghurs deserve more from this government,” she said, urging them to acknowledge the genocide.
Vowing to continue the struggle, de Pulford was pleased at the success of round one. “Products made by slave labour, like Xinjiang’s Uyghurs, have no place in the NHS and it’s great that Sajid Javid agrees. This is long overdue. Time for other departments to follow suit,” said de Pulford.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith who has long campaigned for the Uyghur cause celebrated the government’s decision, saying that it would resonate beyond the shores of the UK.
“It is already resonating among the Uyghurs, who have found themselves under distinct pressure, with husbands often separated from wives and families broken apart for forced labour thousands of miles away from their homes. This measure will speak to them; it is, in a way, a sign that Governments in the free world are taking up this real cause and recognizing that it is intolerable for us to turn a blind eye and buy equipment, clothing and so on simply because it is cheaper and helps our cost balance. I do not believe that it will in the end; the trade-off between cost and the human rights of those who have suffered so much under the heel of those totalitarian states is an abysmal one.”
Giving his backing to the new amendment, UK government minister Edward Argar said, “We share the strength of feeling expressed in both Houses on ensuring that the NHS is in no way inadvertently linked with modern slavery and human trafficking through its supply chain.”