By Jason Fields
WASHINGTON, April 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A US law banning slave-made imports has netted only $6.3 million worth of goods from artificial sweetener to garlic in three years, activists and lawmakers said, urging the government to ramp up its efforts in the global drive to stop forced labor.
The value of suspicious shipments seized so far under the 2016 law amount to 0.0015% of the estimated $400 billion in tainted goods believed to enter the US market each year, according to the Human Trafficking Institute, a non-profit.
The United States prides itself on setting the agenda in tackling modern slavery — from its annual report ranking nations on their anti-trafficking efforts to a biennial list of more than 400 goods at risk of being made by forced or child labor.
The Department of Labor said last year it was boosting its fight against slave-made goods "to safeguard American jobs" for its 325 million citizens, and that it was playing a key role in protecting vulnerable workers from exploitation worldwide.
But the key agency tasked with enforcing the law — Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — has allocated few of its resources to the unit dedicated to stopping the entry of slave-made goods.
CBP's forced labor division is massively understaffed and underfunded, limited in scope and power, and has issued just seven detention orders since 2016 — when rules banning goods made by forced labor were strengthened — several activists said.
"If you just look at this $6.3 million ... it's just a drop in the bucket," said Eric Gottwald, deputy director of the International Labor Rights Forum, a non-profit which works to end forced labor with a focus beyond the United States.
"If the goal of the tariff act is to stop consumers from buying forced-labor-made goods, it's failing," he said of the law, which has been used to detain chemical compounds, peeled garlic and toys from China, as well as cotton from Turkmenistan.
Push for Funding
A CBP spokesman said the value of goods seized by the agency was likely to be higher than $6.3 million once calculations were adjusted this year and, that regardless of the total, the ban would make US companies think twice about their supply chains.
"It has a determent effect," the spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that the agency's seizures helped US businesses to identify and avoid unscrupulous suppliers.
Senator Chris Coons, who sits on CBP's appropriations committee, said prioritizing the crackdown on slave-made imports would begin to create "market force behind ending forced labor". "If we want to make this a higher priority within CBP, we're going to have to show that by investing in more positions," he said of the agency, which has just a handful of investigators and an estimated $2 million budget for its forced labor team.
CBP as a whole accounts for 23% of the Department of Homeland Security's $92 billion budget, and has a total of about 62,000 full-time employees. The CBP spokesman said the forced labor unit could draw from those larger resources, if needed.
President Donald Trump last month submitted his proposed 2020 federal budget to Congress, which calls for a substantial increase to CBP's budget as a whole, adding nearly 800 jobs and more than $4 billion. Congress is working on its own proposal.
Toys, Cotton, Fish
The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (TFTEA) plugs a loophole in a 1930 law that banned slave-made goods but left an exemption for products the United States could not make.
The law allows CBP to stop goods entering the United States based solely on "reasonable suspicion" about its origins.
A company hit with a "withhold release order" can decide to reroute the shipment and try to sell their products elsewhere, or persuade CBP to change its decision by providing documents to demonstrate due diligence and argue the goods are slavery-free.
CBP can go further, seizing cargos and pursuing civil penalties against companies if it has enough evidence to meet the heavier legal burden of "probable cause".
All such decisions are subject to appeal in courts.
The agency also works with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which can begin a criminal investigation based on its own assessment of any cases that are referred by the CBP.
After a barren 2017, CBP last year issued two withhold release orders — toys from China and cotton from Turkmenistan.
Turkmen cotton — and any products made with the fiber — were hit with a blanket ban by CBP last year due to findings of state-enforced slave labor in its picking.
So far, in 2019, one fishing vessel has been detained. The value of its cargo has not been added to the $6.3 million total.
The Department of Labor lists 419 products in 75 countries as being made with either forced labor or child labor, or both.
Overall, 25 million people around the world are trapped in forced labor, according to the International Labor Organization.
About six of CBP's 62,450 staff are dedicated to tackling the entry of slave-made goods into the nation, the agency said.
These investigators begin probes based on tips from advocacy group or the general public, or from their own initiative.
"There's some really good people — staff — that have been reaching out to different NGOs, including ours, and that is really encouraging," said Neha Misra, who works on human trafficking for the Solidarity Center in Washington, DC.
But CBP faces legal limitations concerning its powers.
In most circumstances, the agency can only take action against specific shipments from specific locations or companies — rather than enforcing a blanket ban on a whole sector.
In the case of the toys made in China, the withhold release order is only for toys made by a specific manufacturer, not the entire Chinese toy sector, whatever suspicions are held by CBP.
The same is true of all the other individual products that have had action taken against them, except for Turkmen cotton.
Despite the limited impact to-date, forced labor and trade experts say they are positive about CBP's recent progress.
"They're not an agency that's used to looking for forced labor in supply chains," said Annick Febrey, head of government and corporate relations at the Human Trafficking Institute.
"I think they're building the case now for products they know are at significant risk," Febrey added. "I'm hopeful that we'll see more. The impact so far has been minimal."
(Reporting by Jason Fields; editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)