Forced labor is used to produce a wide array of goods.  For example, The New York Times, produced a series that detailed conditions of forced labor for fishers, particularly on Thai fishing vessels.  The cotton campaign has raised awareness and advocated for an end to forced labor in the cotton harvest in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.  And, the Guardian reported on forced labor in the production of rubber gloves in Malaysia.

To help prevent such goods from entering the United States, Custom and Border Protection (CBP) has a powerful tool at its disposal. Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930 prohibits goods made in whole or in part by “convict labor or/and forced labor or/and indentured labor under penal sanctions” from entering the United States.  In the original law, there was a consumptive demand loophole which meant that even if a good was known to be made by forced labor it could be imported if the United States was not producing enough of that good within its own borders to meet demand.  This loophole was closed in 2016 when the Trade Facilitation Act and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 was signed into law.

Prior to the closure of the loophole, most withhold release orders (WROs) were issued against goods made in China.  Between 2000 and 2017 only five withhold release orders were issued.  But things appear to be changing.  In May 2018, CBP issued a withhold release order against cotton from Turkmenistan, and in the last few months they issue six more WROs.  In September, WROs were issued on specific companies manufacturing garments made by prison or forced labor in Xinjiang, China; disposable rubber gloves made by forced labor in Malaysia; gold mined by forced labor in artisanal small mines in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC); rough diamonds mined by forced labor in Zimbabwe; and bone black produced by forced labor in Brazil.  And, in November a WRO was issued on tobacco and products containing tobacco produced with forced labor from Malawi.  You can help the CBP become aware of additional goods made with forced labor by submitting information through their e-allegation portal.

This is a positive step to help ensure Americans are not supporting forced labor, but the WROs cover just a small percentage of products and thus it is likely that products made with forced labor are still being imported.  The U.S. Department of Labor produces a list of products made with forced or child labor and a list of goods made with forced child labor.  These lists are helpful tools for identifying high risk countries and products, but they do not tell consumers whether a particular production site is using forced labor.

A range of certification schemes have been developed to help consumers buy with confidence, however, many of these top-down, audit based initiatives have had limited success in ensuring that the products they certify are actually made under conditions that uphold internationally recognized labor rights.  A new model, Worker Driven Social Responsibility(WSR), is emerging.  Under this model, protections “must be worker-driven, enforcement-focused, and based on legally binding commitments that assign responsibility for improving working conditions to the global corporations at the top of those supply chains.”  The Fair Food Program is a prominent WSR initiative that has been praised for turning the Florida tomato fields from “ground zero for modern-day slavery” to a safe and respectful workplace.  Other WSR initiatives include the Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, Gender Justice in Apparel in Lesotho, and Milk with Dignity in the Northeastern United States.  Human Trafficking Search hopes to see more workers, companies, and other stakeholders come together to bring the WSR model to additional sectors and countries to prevent forced labor from happening in the first place.

Amy McGann is the program director at Human Trafficking Search