NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A law banning slave-made goods from entering the United States has failed, lawmakers and advocates said, as they push border authorities to step up inspections of suspicious shipments.
More than $140 billion worth of goods likely to be made by forced labor enter the U.S. market each year, New York-based nonprofit Human Rights First estimates.
But only $8.5 million worth of imports have been detained in nearly two years since the ban, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) - which is tasked with enforcing it - told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I am disappointed to see that the administration has not taken any action to seize goods produced by forced labor,” said U.S. House Representative Ron Kind, a champion of the ban, which aims to improve transparency across global supply chains.
Kind was one of nine U.S. House representatives who wrote last month to the CBP voicing their concern over its failure to use the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act (TFTEA) to send a clear message to the world about the use of slave labor.
The CBP has only issued four orders to seize 50 shipments it suspected contained goods made under duress since the law was passed.
This has prompted its architects in Congress to renew their push to put the weight of the U.S. market and its 325 million customers behind the fight against global slavery and eliminate slave-made goods from their stores, homes and children’s hands.
Only a few countries have laws on forced labor goods, such as Canada where prison labor imports are illegal, experts say.
“(I) hope that CBP will take immediate steps to increase enforcement,” Kind said by email.
The CBP has banned four Chinese companies since 2016 from importing a range of goods, including peeled garlic and industrial chemicals, that it suspects were made by prisoners.
Anti-slavery Congress members say the CBP is not using the full force of the law, which allows the agency to detain goods on reasonable - not conclusive - grounds.
“This misreading of the statute would certainly explain the complete lack of enforcement we’ve seen this year,” U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown said by email.
“It is unacceptable,” he said, adding that he also plans to write to the CBP.
A CBP spokeswoman said the agency was looking into how to effectively enforce the law.
“The CBP is committed to rigorous and judicious enforcement of all U.S. trade laws, including the prohibition on the entry of items made using forced labor,” the spokeswoman said.
Staffing at the unit has also come under scrutiny. The CBP’s former head, Gil Kerlikowske, said that only 24 employees were monitoring forced labor imports, on top of their other duties.
“I don’t think we felt the resources were adequate,” Kerlikowske, who left his role in January, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
The CBP said it had a “dedicated team” at its headquarters to implement the ban and agency-wide staff contributing their expertise far exceeded 24 employees.
Congress did not specifically allocate any funds to implement the TFTEA, it said.
Supporters of the law say it does have bite, if implemented.
Sweetener maker PureCircle issued a profit warning and shares tumbled after the CBP seized shipments from China of its low-calorie sweetener stevia - used in Coca-Cola Life - that the agency suspected were produced by convicts.
The CBP released the consignments in January after receiving proof that the sweetener was not produced by Inner Mongolia Hengzheng Group Baoanzhao Agricultural and Trade, the company in CBP’s crosshairs for forced labor.
One industry that activists want to crack down on is cotton, which has a complex supply chain, from fields to fashion stores.
A 2016 U.S. Department of Labor report documented state-enforced slave labor to harvest cotton in Turkmenistan.
So campaigners were confident of a “slam dunk” when they submitted a petition to the CBP to ban cotton from the Central Asian nation, said Eric Gottwald, legal and policy director for the Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum.
But it was declined, despite including records of a New York textile distributor receiving cotton from Turkmenistan.
“The materials provided do not contain enough substantial information,” the CBP told the petitioners in a letter.
Turkmenistan’s U.S. embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Campaigners are desperate to see tougher action, and soon.
“Men, women and children are forced to work day in and day out for little or no pay, to make products that end up here on our shelves,” said Annick Febrey, an expert on trafficking with Human Rights First.
“Lives are at stake - the U.S. government must act with urgency to enforce the ban on slave-made goods.”
Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Katy Migiro and Kieran Guilbert.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org