At Senate Finance Hearing, Portman Discusses Need to Make PPE in America, Use Artificial Intelligence to Combat Forced Labor

March 18, 2021 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, DC -- During a Senate Finance Committee hearing today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) highlighted the need for supply chain reform to prevent forced labor and bring jobs back to the United States. Portman highlighted concerning stories about the use of forced labor to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for the COVID-19 pandemic in Xinjiang, China, where the Chinese Communist Party is conducting an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing of the Uighur population. Portman believes these kinds of stories underscore the need to bring back more manufacturing to the United States. One way Portman is fighting to accomplish that is through his Make PPE in America Act, which will encourage the federal government to give long-term manufacturing contracts to U.S. companies who manufacture PPE within United States.

Portman, as co-chair of the Senate AI Caucus, also highlighted the role that artificial intelligence (AI) can play in ensuring supply chain integrity and to crack down on fraud, forced labor, and other issues affecting supply chains.

A transcript of the exchange can be found below and a video can be found here.

Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for making this possible with all of our schedules. I want to thank you for the hearing too, you and Ranking Member Crapo, this is a really important one. Ms. Vandenberg, I appreciated your views this morning, and your work more generally on this issue, and you clarified that forced labor involved a lot of different sectors of our economy.

“Ms. Hughes, I appreciated what you said in your testimony about how success should be measured by reduction of forced labor, and we appreciate your companies’ work in that regard.”

“I’ve got to tell you, I was surprised last year when I saw this investigation by the New York Times on what’s happening during the pandemic in the Xinjiang region of China. This, of course, is where the Uighurs are experiencing so many human rights abuses, and one is, of course, forced labor. I learned that, with regard to protective equipment, PPE, there were only four companies prior to the pandemic that were producing PPE, yet by June that number had increased to 51 companies. Seventeen of those companies were known to utilize Uighur forced labor. While not all of these were for export, I acknowledge that, the principle still stands.

“Instead of meeting the demand for PPE with products produced by forced labor in China, what we should be doing, obviously, is incentivizing the return of PPE production to the United States—just one more reason. And one way we can do that is by issuing these long-term contracts. What we have found is that companies in the United States, and I spoke to some as recently as yesterday, they do want to produce more products here – textiles in general but specifically PPE – but they need to know there’s’ going be a market for it. And specifically, it frustrates me that our federal government will not give them long-term contracts and some predictability and some certainty, and it seems to make sense, frankly, for the U.S. government as well. Otherwise the reshoring is not going to occur. So in our proposal called the Make PPE in America Act, we simply added a Berry amendment requirement to strengthen these supply chains.

“Mr. Wrona, I’m going to turn to you, because I haven’t seen you answer a question recently, I’m sure you were busy earlier, but can you explain how doing this, diversifying supply chains and reshoring manufacturing can help reduce reliance on forced labor?”

Mr. Joseph Wrona, Member, United Steelworkers: “Well, I think if the government would spend some money on our factories and some investment – you know, Globe itself has spent millions and millions and millions of dollars fighting cheap Chinese products – if they were to spend that money on our factories, they would run more efficiently and maybe we would still be open. We need some type of fair playing field to help us out, and the country wants to go solar, wants to go green, but we’re going to rely on 80 percent of our solar-grade silicon to come from China? So then we rely on China to go green – that doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t know how we can let that happen.”

Portman: “And it also helps with regard to forced labor in China if we can have that PPE, as an example, be made here, so the general principle stands.

“Another issue we just talked about was this blockchain, the distributive ledger idea, and I found that a really interesting conversation with Senator Cassidy. Mr. Bonanni, I think there’s an opportunity here to use artificial intelligence better. I’m co-chair of the caucus here in the Congress on this, and I led a letter with Senator Warner last year to Secretary Pompeo about the AI-enabled facial recognition technology that the Chinese Communist Party is using to surveil Uighurs, and also other authoritarian regimes are increasingly using artificial intelligence. So it’s certainly being used in a negative way.

“But I also think artificial intelligence can play a helpful role in combating forced labor. Researchers successfully used machine learning, as an example, to identify fishing vessels using forced labor by recognizing patterns that were unique to those vessels. Your company uses technology in this regard. Are you interested in this? Are there forced labor signatures within supply chains? How can AI make it easier to identify those signatures, which might not be readily apparent?”

Mr. Leonardo Bonanni, Ph.D., Founder and CEO, Sourcemap: “Absolutely. Look, I’m an MIT guy at heart, so I think of this as a fight that we have against supply chain hackers. They’re using modern technology to misrepresent the origins of goods to get them into the U.S. And we’re still, in many cases, using last-century technology to monitor supply chains, and we need to bring in that level of technology that we use in enforcement, much higher than the hackers. It’s not that sophisticated, what they’re doing, we just need to detect fraud.

“And what we do ranges from very simple things like making sure a farm produced the right amount to be expected for the area, to making sure that the audits are conducted blindly and with a lot of supporting documentation. And all of that, you can think of a credit card company scanning your transactions to look for anomalies to put up red flags early, to help companies immediately detect a problem in their supply chain, months before they even receive the goods. So artificial intelligence, machine learning, those are absolutely essential to monitoring those supply chains once we have transparency.”