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U.S. rapped over gaps in catching slave-made imports

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 22:36 GMT

A worker inspects newly-made gloves at Top Glove factory in Shah Alam, Malaysia August 26, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

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More than $400 billion worth of products likely to be made by forced labor enter the U.S. market each year

Oct 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A drive by the United States to block illegal imports of goods made by forced labor has been hampered by a lack of skilled staff and reliable data, a government watchdog said in a report.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has in recent years suspended some investigations into imports it suspected to be tainted by slave labor because of staff shortages, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found on Tuesday.

Under a 2016 law, it is illegal to import goods into the United States that are made entirely or in part by forced labor - which includes prison work, bonded labor and child labor.

Recent seizures by U.S. officials include rubber gloves from Malaysia and products such as cotton and clothes from Xinjiang, China. The region is home to many Muslim Uighur people - a minority that has faced mass detention in government camps.

The GAO report analysed the CBP's performance from 2016 to 2019, during which time it issued about 13 detention orders. The agency has since ramped up action and levied at least 13 more import bans this year, most involving goods made in Xinjiang.

Yet the watchdog said issues from limited data to a lack of targets meant the CBP was unable to monitor its own performance and best allocate resources.

"CBP has increased forced labor investigations and civil enforcement actions, but managers lack complete and consistent data summarizing cases," said the GAO report.

In one misfilled CBP spreadsheet reviewed by GAO, some entries listed the maker of suspect goods instead of detailing progress on a case, while data on sources of evidence was scant.

"(CBP) faces challenges enforcing the prohibition on forced labor imports with current staffing levels," the report said.

In response, the Department of Homeland Security - which oversees the CBP - said it accepted the GAO recommendations and would look at staffing, improve data and set itself targets.

The CBP told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that the agency had detained more than 300 shipments of goods made with forced labor, valued at more than $50 million, in the 2020 fiscal year.

"CBP assesses forced labor to be a heinous human rights abuse and a significant threat to the competitiveness of U.S. businesses," a spokesman said. "We will continue to use all of the tools at our disposal to prevent goods made with forced labor from entering the United States."

A company facing a detention order can sell elsewhere or produce documents to demonstrate due diligence and show the goods are slave-free.

More than $400 billion worth of goods likely to be made by forced labor enter the U.S. market each year, according to estimates by the Human Trafficking Institute, a non-profit.

About 20 million people globally are victims of labor trafficking, according to a 2016 estimate by the United Nations. (Writing by Kieran Guilbert, editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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