Forced labor makes a range of U.S. imports. But now officials are cracking down on it.

“The apparel and footwear industry has a moral and legal obligation to ensure that our supply chains are not infected by forced labor,” said Steve Lamar, president and CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association. “Because we take the subject of forced labor so seriously, we found the reports in Xinjiang troubling and we have taken extensive measures to ensure that products made using forced labor do not enter our industry’s supply chains.”

But determining the origin of the cotton is a challenge. Xinjiang cotton is often combined with cotton from other areas in manufacturing and can be processed in several countries before entering the supply chains of major clothing brands and being sold to ignorant consumers. Lamar said companies are using new technology and methods to monitor supply chains, but there is no panacea given the many ways that cotton from different sectors can be combined during the transnational production process.

Lack of resources

The CBP’s forced labor office is still very small. Non-profit organizations conducting forced labor investigations, whose petitions CBP often base on initiating their own investigations, criticize the agency for the slow pace of their investigations and the lack of transparency.

Bipartisan members of the House Ways and Means Committee, to which the agency reports on enforcement of forced labor, have also pressured the CBP to step up enforcement, calling on them in letters, more during both the Trump and Biden administrations To take action.

In a statement, CBP said it is issuing suspension orders “as soon as possible, after thorough investigation” and that it is keen to work with civil society groups and other stakeholders in the area of ​​forced labor. However, federal laws regulating the disclosure of commercial information limit what they can publicly share and they must “carefully” [balance] the need for transparency with the need to maintain the integrity of law enforcement investigations and the safety of sources, “she said.

CBP officials in Atlanta last month inspect clothing believed to be made from cotton harvested from forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. The image was blurred at the source.US Customs and Border Protection

The biggest challenge right now is resources, said experts and government officials who use forced labor. After the loophole was closed, CBP employed no more than four people dealing with forced labor issues for over a year, and there was no official forced labor budget. The agency set up a forced labor department in 2018, but a year later it still had about 12 employees, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year.

A second GAO report last year found that many investigations were suspended because of staff shortages and lack of resources – this was the listed reason for up to two-thirds of all suspended investigations.

Hinojosa, the CBP’s director of forced labor enforcement, said the agency had implemented GAO recommendations, including staff increases, and received a significant increase in forced labor funding from Congress this year. The House Ways and Means Committee is calling for a ten-fold increase in resources and a four-fold increase in staff for the CBP’s investigation and enforcement of forced labor over the next year.

In June 2020, Customs and Border Protection officials inspect a shipment of hairpieces and accessories from China, which are believed to have been made using forced labor, in the port of New York / Newark. Image at source out of focus.US Customs and Border Protection

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

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

“No safe haven”

However, goods that are no longer allowed to be imported into the USA can easily find their way to other markets.

Proponents say that because of this alone, US enforcement is not enough and why other countries should use US law as a model for their own.

“There doesn’t have to be a safe haven for forced labor goods,” said Allison Gill, forced labor director for the nonprofit Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum. “We want to avoid manufacturers or importers simply unloading their goods elsewhere.”

Most countries oppose forced labor, but until last year the US was the only country legally allowed to withhold goods made using forced labor. Some countries, such as the UK and France, recently introduced transparency laws that require companies to report on how they identify and address human rights risks in their supply chains.

When the US renegotiated its trade agreement with Mexico and Canada in 2018, the new treaty obliged Canada and Mexico to standardize their rules on forced labor for precisely this reason. Canada passed its law last year, making it only the second country to have such a rule, and it has been expanding its forced labor import program since then, but it had not taken any enforcement action by the end of last month, a spokesman for the Canadian Border Guard said. The Mexican parliament has yet to pass a version of the law.

More and more countries are considering US-style laws, from Australia to Taiwan. The European Parliament is in the process of introducing EU-wide due diligence requirements for importers that could pave the way for a complete ban on imports using forced labor. Such an approach by the EU, the second largest import market after the USA, would have significant international effects.

“A lot of these troubled jurisdictions … the export market is a little different,” said John Sifton, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “But in many of these countries, when you add the EU and the US together, you are basically talking about the majority of exports in many sectors.”

In June, the G7 announced their commitment to combating forced labor and instructed their trade ministers to develop forced labor strategies to be discussed at their next meeting in October.

“There is a fundamental change,” said Martina Vandenberg, president of the non-profit legal center for human trafficking. “I would compare this to the moment anti-corruption law enforcement began. Bribes used to be ubiquitous. … That all changed with the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and, more importantly, its implementation and enforcement.”

US lawmakers are working to increase import restrictions on forced labor through additional laws. In July, the Senate passed a law banning all imports from Xinjiang due to concerns about forced labor. The House of Representatives, which passed a version of the bill last year, has yet to take up the Senate bill. A similar law banning imports from North Korea was passed in 2017.

“The question is what it takes to get the law through,” said Nova. “You speak of literally billions of potential violations over the course of a year. … It is big, [but] it is possible. It is a question of whether there is really any commitment to do this and provide the necessary resources. “

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