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Italy: lawyers file complaints of Uighur forced labour over tomato paste

01/07/2024 - François-Xavier Branthôme
Containers of tomato paste exported from Xinjiang to Italy are the subject of domestic criminal and international complaints filed by rights lawyers on behalf of Uyghur advocacy groups who allege that the goods were produced using Uyghur forced labor.

The shipment was among 82 containers of agricultural products from China’s state-owned Xinjiang Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Investment (Group) Co., Ltd. shipped by rail and sea from Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, to southern Italy in late April, according to the plaintiffs. 

The shipment also sparked outrage among Italian farmers who protested against the arrival of the cheaper processed tomato products from China in what they said were unfair imports (see also related articles below).

The containers transported by rail as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative arrived in Salerno, Italy, at the end of May, according to Italy’s StraLi, a nonprofit group that promotes the protection of rights through the judicial system. On May 30, StraLi filed a criminal complaint demanding that the goods be seized as evidence. It also filed a submission to the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights on June 3, requesting a communication to the Italian government to seize the goods and investigate the companies involved in the importation.

The move comes less than two months after the European Parliament approved a new regulation banning products made with force labor from entering the European Union. The EU’s 27 member countries must approve the Forced Labour Regulation for it to enter into force and will have three years to implement it. “This legal challenge addresses both violations of fundamental principles of human dignity and international law instruments, as well as calling for the seizure of these recently imported goods under national law,” said a statement issued by these groups on June 3. 

 A freight train departing from Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and heading to Europe.

The transportation route combining rail and sea transportation services is a flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature debt and infrastructure program, according to Chinese media. The shipment occurred despite Italy’s pullout from the BRI in 2023.

China-Europe freight route a ‘crucial lifeline’
The China-Europe freight train service has emerged as a crucial lifeline for enterprises grappling with supply chain disruptions, exemplified by a recent milestone where a freight train carrying tomato paste successfully traversed from Urumqi in Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region to Salerno, Italy.

The new route, spanning over 10,000 kilometers in about 35 days, seamlessly integrates rail and ocean transportation, crossing the Caspian and Black seas to reach its final destination in Italy — a journey significantly faster than traditional maritime routes to Southern Europe.

Xinjiang Tianshun Supply Chain Co, a logistics and supply chain management company based in Urumqi, is one of the first companies to use the China-Europe freight train’s new route to transport tomato paste from Xinjiang to Europe. It is a major logistics company that heavily relied on the maritime transportation. But the Red Sea Crisis caused the company’s tons of tomato paste to be stranded at Tianjin Port since the Spring Festival in February.
We have had over 10,000 tons of tomato paste piled up in Tianjin Port since the Spring Festival (because of the Red Sea attacks),” said Ding Zhiping, president of the company.
However, thanks to the new set-scheduled train service between Xinjiang and Italy, it has swiftly resolved our logistical challenges, boosting export volumes, shortening transit times and enhancing operational efficiency,” he said. Since April, the company has dispatched approximately 50 standard containers filled with tomato paste from Xinjiang, totaling 7,200 tons.


Ding elaborated on the cost and time savings facilitated by the China-Europe freight train service, highlighting its economic advantages over traditional sea routes. “There are two types of costs (in logistics) – money and time. If the tomato paste were to ship by sea, taking the route around the Cape of Good Hope, it could cost nearly USD 5,000 per container to reach Italy. However, with the current westward route via the China-Europe freight train service, the cost is approximately USD 4,200 per container,” he said.
In terms of time, it may take around two and a half months to depart from Tianjin Port and reach Italy, and the rail journey typically spans 30 to 35 days. These reduced costs have led to increased efficiency,” he added.

The Red Sea is an essential part of the ocean freight passage linking Europe and Asia. About 60 percent of Chinese trade with Europe transits through the Suez Canal, which involves passing through the Red Sea, according to a recent report by Fitch Ratings. Some smaller-volume goods have shifted to rail transportation, notably on the China-Europe railway line, where the capacity to transport goods from China to the continent has increased significantly from the pre-crisis level, according to the report.

Chinese, European and American customers, as well as large international logistics companies such as DHL and Kuehne+Nagel, have shown strong interest in the new route passing the transcontinental maritime routes, attracting freight from China to Georgia, Turkiye, and Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Southern Europe,” Kang Yingfeng, deputy general manager of China Railway International Multimodal Transportation (CRIMT) told China Daily in a recent interview.

Fu Cong, China’s former ambassador to the European Union, made the remarks in March in a signed article published on Euractiv, a European news website focused on EU policy issues. “It is fair to say that the China-Europe Railway Express has become a lifeline for China-EU trade at this critical moment,” he said.

Some complementary data
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), known in China as the One Belt One Road and sometimes referred to as the New Silk Road, is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in more than 150 countries and international organizations. The BRI is composed of six urban development land corridors linked by road, rail, energy, and digital infrastructure and the Maritime Silk Road linked by the development of ports.


China in Red, the members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in orange. The proposed corridors in black (Land Silk Road), and blue (Maritime Silk Road).

The annual number of services has surged from a few dozen at the beginning to over 17,000 last year. The growth has become more prominent since 2016.
Between 2016 and 2023, the annual number of China-Europe freight trains increased from 1,702 to over 17,000, representing nearly a tenfold growth with an average annual growth rate of 39.5 percent.
The remarkable growth in the number of services reflects strong market demand. This mode of transportation is more cost-effective than air travel and more reliable than sea transport, serving as a strategic and alternative option for international freight.

Chinese exports of tomato paste have increased sharply over the past two years, notably due to massive purchases from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Ghana.

Related articles

Italy: Chinese paste imports targeted by activists

27/06/2024 See details





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