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June 28, 2016

U.S. Should Continue Banning Imports of Goods Produced by Slaves

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has detained shipments of chemicals, textiles, and sugar substitutes made in China as part of an effort to block imports that were likely made using forced labor. These bans are the first since Congress closed a loophole in the 1930 Tariff Act that allowed slave-produced goods to enter the United States if domestic demand for the goods exceeded domestic supply. The loophole had essentially made the Tariff Act ban completely ineffective in preventing so-called “dirty goods” from entering the United States.

The products that have been detained since the Tariff Act was amended in February were likely produced by Chinese prison laborers, who are forced to produce goods throughout the Chinese manufacturing sector, including clothing, toys, electronics, construction materials, food items, and more.

In 2014, China shut down its laogai or “reeducation through labor” camps, which human rights groups had condemned as brutal, secretive, and a way for the Chinese government to punish political dissidents. However, NGOs and U.S. government officials say that many people are still forced to work in Chinese detention facilities. They work under very harsh conditions, and it is reported that prisoners have their identification documents seized and that work hours are largely unregulated.

Chinese officials and manufacturing firms deny any use of prison labor, and finding witnesses or victims to provide verification can be difficult. Even after inmates are released, they are often reluctant to complain about the treatment they received as convict laborers. The Chinese government classifies most prison-related information as state secrets.

Closing the Tariff Act loophole presents a valuable opportunity for the United States to combat forced labor through trade. It also levels the playing field for responsible companies that have adopted strong measures to ensure they do not have slaves working in their supply chains.

The United States imports over $100 billion worth of goods each year that are at high risk of being produced with child and slave labor. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should continue ramping up its enforcement of the Tariff Act and initiating investigations of forced labor in the private economy.

So far, CBP has mostly banned imports produced by Chinese prison labor, but in order to truly develop a culture of transparency and respect for human rights in global supply chains, CBP must expand and standardize its enforcement efforts to include all forms of slavery in countries that export to the United States.

Companies can reduce the risk of perpetuating slavery by conducting frequent audits of their suppliers and prohibiting them from engaging in unauthorized subcontracting. By fostering long-term relationships with conscientious suppliers, and rewarding those who do not use forced labor, companies can play an invaluable role in combatting modern-day slavery.