A Depression-Era Loophole Allowing Trafficked Goods in America Finally Closes

Last Thursday the Senate passed a new customs enforcement bill by a margin of 75-20. The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, which addresses a wide array of issues from currency manipulation to intellectual property rights, ends an 85-year-old customs loophole allowing goods produced by child or forced labor into American markets when national demand exceeds production.

In the height of the Depression, lawmakers passed the U.S. Tariff Act of 1930 to block the import of goods tainted by forced labor, but because of the glaring loophole, it has been rarely enforced. It is a technicality that has undermined anti-trafficking efforts for far too long, but if President Obama signs the new customs enforcement legislation into law, the escape clause will vanish.

This welcome change could force improvements in the way businesses with international supply chains operate, leveling the playing field for responsible corporate leaders who protect their supply chains from trafficked labor. However, eliminating the loophole will mean little without follow-through; enforcement must now be a priority for Customs and Border Protection investigators.

Last year, the Associated Press and others revealed widespread evidence of trafficked labor in the supply chains of prominent American businesses. From seafood to chocolate, the products tainted by forced servitude were as diverse as the methods traffickers use to coerce and ensnare victims across the globe.

“The laborers come from Thailand’s much poorer neighbors Myanmar and Cambodia. Brokers illegally charge them fees to get jobs, trapping them into working on fishing vessels and at ports, mills and seafood farms in Thailand to pay back more money than they can ever earn,” explained AP’s Martha Mendoza during her report on Nestle’s involvement.

While many of the goods produced through trafficked labor in the AP series did not explicitly enter American markets because of the Trafficking Act’s loophole, its continued presence stood as a stark reminder of much-needed improvements to effectively combat modern day slavery.

There are over 21 million victims of human trafficking today, 14.5 million of whom have fallen prey to forced labor slavery. Yet for how endemic the problem is, there were only 10,051 prosecutions of traffickers worldwide in 2014, and of that, only 418 cases focused on forced labor. If U.S. investigators follow through on their new mandate, and target those importing goods produced overseas through forced and child labor, it may change the calculus that for far too long has meant high profits with little risk for traffickers.

For more information on Human Rights First’s plan to bankrupt slavery, read our Blueprint: How to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking.

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Published on February 17, 2016

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