Human Trafficking: US Closes Legal Loophole on 'Slave Labor' Imports

By Holtz, Michael | The Christian Science Monitor, February 18, 2016 | Go to article overview

Human Trafficking: US Closes Legal Loophole on 'Slave Labor' Imports


Holtz, Michael, The Christian Science Monitor


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 more 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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