Published On: Mon, Sep 6th, 2021

U.S. cracks down on imported goods made by Uyghurs and other victims of forced labor


“The apparel and footwear industry has a moral and legal obligation to make sure forced labor does not infect our supply chains,” said Steve Lamar, president and CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. “Because we take the issue of forced labor so seriously, we have found the reports of it in Xinjiang to be disturbing and have taken extensive action to ensure that products made with forced labor do not touch our industry’s supply chains.”

But determining cotton’s origin is a challenge. Xinjiang’s cotton is often combined with cotton from other areas during manufacturing, and it may be processed in multiple countries before it ends up in the supply chains of major clothing brands and is sold to unwitting consumers. Lamar said companies are using new technology and methods to monitor supply chains, but there is no silver bullet given the many ways cotton from different areas can be combined during the transnational production process.

A lack of resources

CBP’s forced labor office is still very small. Nonprofit organizations that conduct forced labor investigations, whose petitions CBP often relies on to launch its own investigations, have criticized the agency for the slow pace of its investigations and a lack of transparency.

Bipartisan members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which the agency reports to about forced labor enforcement, have also pressured CBP to increase its enforcement, sending letters urging it to take more action during both the Trump and the Biden administrations.

In a statement, CBP said that it issues withhold release orders as “expeditiously as possible, after thorough investigations,” and that it is very interested in collaborating with civil society groups and other stakeholders on forced labor. However, federal laws governing the disclosure of trade information limit what it can share publicly, and it must “carefully [balance] the need for transparency with the need to maintain the integrity of its law enforcement investigations and the safety of sources,” it said.

CBP officers in Atlanta last month inspect apparel suspected to have been made with cotton harvested by forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. The image was blurred at the source.U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The biggest challenge right now is resources, said experts and government officials who work on forced labor. For more than a year after the loophole was repealed, CBP had no more than four employees working on forced labor issues, and it had no official forced labor budget. The agency established a Forced Labor Division in 2018, but it still had only about 12 staff members more than a year later, according to a report last year from the Government Accountability Office, or GAO.

A second GAO report last year noted that many investigations were on hold because of the lack of staffing and resources — it was the listed reason for as many as two-thirds of all suspended investigations.

Hinojosa, the CBP forced labor enforcement director, said the agency has implemented the GAO’s recommendations, including increasing staffing, and got a significant increase in forced labor funding from Congress this year. The House Ways and Means Committee is requesting as much as a tenfold increase in funding and a quadrupling of staffing for CBP’s forced labor investigations and enforcement next year.

Officers of Customs and Border Protection inspect a shipment of hair pieces and accessories from China suspected to have been made with forced labor in June 2020 at the port of New York/Newark. Image blurred at the source.U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The government has additional forced labor tools that have rarely or never been used, including civil fines and prosecutions of forced labor importers.

“Will CBP enforce aggressively and appropriately? Will DOJ take action where action is appropriate?” asked Nova of the Worker Rights Consortium. “If those two things happen, it is going to have a significant impact on how corporations assess risk and therefore how they behave in their supply chains, which will help workers.”

‘No safe harbor’

Goods no longer allowed to enter the U.S. can easily find their way to other markets, however.

Advocates say that is why U.S. enforcement alone is not enough and why other countries should use the U.S. law as a model for their own.

“There needs to be no safe harbor for forced labor goods,” said Allison Gill, the forced labor director of the nonprofit Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum. “We want to avoid a situation where manufacturers or importers can just dump their goods elsewhere.”

Most countries decry forced labor, but until last year, the U.S. was the only country with the statutory power to detain goods made with forced labor. Some countries, like the U.K. and France, recently implemented transparency laws requiring companies to report how they identify and take action against human rights risks in their supply chains, as well.

When the U.S. renegotiated its trade agreement with Mexico and Canada in 2018, the new treaty required Canada and Mexico to make their rules about forced labor consistent for just that reason. Canada passed its law last year, becoming only the second country with such a rule, and it has been building up its forced labor imports program since then, but as of late last month, it had not taken any enforcement action, said a spokesperson for the Canadian Border Services Agency. Mexico’s Parliament has yet to pass a version of the law.

More countries are considering U.S.-style laws, from Australia to Taiwan. The European Parliament is in the process of adopting E.U.-wide due diligence requirements for importers that could pave the way for a full ban on imports made with forced labor. Such action by the E.U., the second-largest import market after the U.S., would have substantial international impact.

“A lot of these problematic jurisdictions … the export market is somewhat diverse,” said John Sifton, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “But in a lot of these countries, if you add the E.U. and U.S. together, you’re basically talking about the majority of exports in a lot of sectors.”

In June, the G7 announced a commitment to fight forced labor and directed its trade ministers to come up with forced labor strategies to discuss at its next meeting in October.

“There is a sea change,” said Martina Vandenberg, president of the nonprofit Human Trafficking Legal Center. “I would compare this to the moment when enforcement of anti-bribery statutes started. Bribes used to be ubiquitous. … That all changed with the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and, more importantly, its implementation and enforcement.”

U.S. lawmakers are working to increase forced labor import restrictions through additional legislation. In July, the Senate passed a bill that would bar all imports from Xinjiang over concerns about forced labor. The House, which passed a version of the bill last year, has yet to take up the Senate bill. A similar bill that barred imports from North Korea passed in 2017.

“The question is what does it take to enforce” the laws, Nova said. “You’re talking about, in the course of a given year, literally billions of potential violations. … It’s big, [but] it’s feasible. It’s a question of whether there’s a real commitment to do it and to provide the necessary resources.”



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