U.S. bans imports from Chinese fishing fleet over forced labor allegations

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S. May 13, 2021. Graeme Jennings/Pool via REUTERS

WASHINGTON, May 28 (Reuters) - U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Friday imposed a new import ban on seafood from a Chinese fishing fleet that the agency says is using forced labor on its 32 vessels, including abuses against many Indonesian workers.

The CBP said it will immediately detain tuna, swordfish and other products from the Dalian Ocean Fishing Co Ltd at U.S. ports of entry. The "withhold release order" banning the imports also applies to other end-use products containing seafood from the company, such as canned tuna and pet food, a CBP official said.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the action marks the first time the CBP has banned imports from an entire fishing fleet, as opposed to the individual vessels targeted in the past.

"DHS will continue to aggressively investigate the use of forced labor by distant water fishing vessels, and by a wide range of other industries," Mayorkas told a news briefing. "Producers and U.S. importers alike should understand that there will be consequences for entities that attempt to exploit workers to sell goods in the United States."

China's foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that accusations of forced labor were "completely groundless".

Speaking at a regular briefing in Beijing on Monday, he said China would take "necessary measures" to safeguard its companies' rights.

CBP officials said the agency's investigation revealed that many Indonesian workers hired onto Dalian Ocean Fishing vessels found conditions far different than what they expected and were subjected to physical violence, withholding of pay, debt bondage and abusive working and living conditions.

Earlier this week, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai called attention to the issue of forced labor on fishing vessels, submitting a new proposal to the World Trade Organization to curb subsidies to illegal fishing and requiring that member countries recognize the problem.

U.S. imports from Dalian Ocean Fishing are small, totaling $2.9 million between Jan. 1, 2019, and April 30, 2021, according to CBP data.

But the issue of forced labor is a growing flashpoint in strained U.S.-China relations, after numerous recent import bans related to China's detention of Uyghur Muslims in the far-western Xinjiang region. The move comes less than two days after Tai held an initial conversation with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He. read more

The Trump administration, during its last week in office in January, announced a sweeping import ban on all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang over allegations that they are produced with Uyghur forced labor - a far-reaching move that would require apparel and textile industries to reorder their supply chains. read more

Reporting by David Lawder Editing by Chizu Nomiyama

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