Human trafficking: US closes legal loophole on 'slave labor' imports

Revelations of forced labor in Southeast Asia's seafood trade have led to legislative action by Congress that will strengthen the power of customs officials to reject tainted goods. 

Chaiwat Subprasom/REUTERS
Workers sort fish at a seafood market in Samut Sakhon, Thailand, on Jan. 28.

President Obama is expected to sign into law soon a prohibition on all imports produced by forced or child labor, closing a loophole that has allowed such products to enter the country for decades.

The ban is part of a far-reaching trade bill that the Senate passed 75 to 20 last Thursday. Following the vote, the White House announced that Mr. Obama intended to sign the legislation. Observers say he is likely to do so next week. 

Passage of the bill comes amid growing public awareness about the prevalence of modern-day slavery. The United Nations estimates that some 21 million people are victims of forced labor worldwide, including in the United States. While analysts say the US import ban isn't enough to stop all slave-made goods from entering the country in and of itself, it is an important and timely step.

The ban, which is an amendment to the trade bill, ends an exemption in the Tariff Act of 1930 that allows goods made by convict, forced, or indentured labor to be imported if consumer demand cannot be met without them. The loophole has provided legal cover for a wide range of imports with dubious origins, from cocoa harvested by children in Africa to clothes sewn by abused women in Southeast Asia. 

“Without any question, it is morally wrong for the perpetrators of slave or child labor to have any place in the American economy,” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who co-sponsored the amendment, said last week on the Senate floor. “So the old system that leaves the door open to child or slave labor if it’s used to make a product that isn’t made here in the US – that system absolutely must end, and it will.”

Kenneth Kennedy, a senior policy adviser for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has described the exemption as the “Achilles heel” of the Tariff Act. The 1930 law granted federal agents the authority to seize shipments where forced labor is suspected and block further imports. Yet it has been used only 39 times in the last 85 years.

Once the loophole is closed, Customs and Border Protection will have greater authority to turn away suspiciously sourced goods at ports of entry. To launch an investigation, the agency needs to receive a petition showing “reasonably but not conclusively” that imports were made at least in part with forced labor. (ICE is responsible for investigating illicit trade in export countries.)

Seafood presents a particular problem for enforcement. About 90 percent of the seafood consumed in American households is imported. Trade analysts say it’s hard, if not impossible, to prove that fish in a particular US-bound container had been caught by slaves; catches from different fishing boats often mix together at processing plants before being shipped overseas.

To effectively monitor imports, ICE and Customs need to modernize their practices and dedicate more resources to enforcing the pending ban, says Jesse Eaves, director of policy and government relations for Humanity United, a Washington-based advocacy group.

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“Closing the loophole is a good first step,” Mr. Eaves says, adding that the federal agencies “need to bring their capacity up to the level at which global supply chains operate.”

Thailand feels the pressure

The US Labor Department maintains a list of 353 goods and their source countries that it suspects are produced by child or forced labor. The new law would ensure that everything on the list – from cotton in Argentina to tobacco in Zambia – is properly scrutinized. But few products are likely to face as much attention as fish and shrimp imported from Thailand.  

Over the last year, a series of news media investigations have highlighted pervasive human trafficking and forced labor within the Thai fishing industry. An exposé by the Associated Press found slave-caught seafood in the supply chains of major US grocery stores and restaurants. The discovery led to widespread outrage and importers demanding for change.

The Monitor reports that class-action lawsuits have been filed in California against Costco, Nestle, and several other major companies accusing them of selling slave-tainted products. And earlier this month, Obama signed the Port State Measures Agreement, an international pact that empowers officials to ban foreign vessels suspected of illegal fishing from receiving port services and access. 

For its part, the Thai government has promised to install satellite tracking devices on more fishing ships. Thai Union, one of the world's biggest seafood exporters, says it has hired 1,200 workers from outsourced shrimp processing sheds into safer, more closely regulated in-house jobs with better pay, reports the AP. Other Thai companies have vowed to clean up their supply chains and stop using subcontractors accused of bad practices.

Meanwhile, a Bangkok-based organization The Monitor profiled last month has been working to help human trafficking victims in Thailand get back on their feet.

Josh Kurlantzick, a fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the import ban would put additional pressure on Thailand to clean up its $7 billion seafood industry. While he's hopeful that the tightened restrictions would "sink in and change the way the Thai seafood business operates," he warns that any progress will be slow.

“The larger seafood and fish companies are beginning to realize this is a big problem,” he says in an e-mail. "But it is going to be very hard to go down the whole supply chain and verify."

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