In August 2020, Customs and Border Protection collected a $575,000 fine from a Chicago-based company for attempting to import 20 shipments of a plant extract used as a soft drink sweetener that had been produced by prison labor in China.
This civil action against Pure Circle U.S.A. is just one example of a burst of enforcement activity taken by a CBP division led by Ana Hinojosa and her deputy, Eric Choy, under recent authority provided by Congress to stem the flow of imports made with forced labor.
“The team’s efforts have made an impact on thousands of vulnerable workers and demonstrated the nation’s leadership in championing human rights,” said Brenda Smith, CBP’s former executive assistant commissioner for trade. “This division has placed a national spotlight on the issue of forced labor and the need for industry and consumer due diligence.”
Forced labor is a global phenomenon. According to the International Labor Organization, an estimated 25 million people work under involuntary conditions, about two-thirds of them in the Asia-Pacific region. Forced labor generates about $150 billion in profit annually, with workers held captive by tactics that include seized identity documents, withheld wages, debt bondage threats and physical and sexual violence.
The U.S. has banned imported goods produced by forced labor since the 1930s, but the law left the door open to exploitation by admitting products that were ruled to be in short supply domestically. That changed in 2016 when President Barack Obama signed the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, and the issue subsequently was made a priority by the Trump administration.
Armed with new authority, the CBP unit issued 29 orders between February 2016 and January 2021 that blocked shipments of products made by forced labor from entering the U.S. During the previous 80 years, only 33 of these work release orders had been issued.
The blocked shipments have included cotton garments, toys, potassium, hair products, peeled garlic and the plant extract stevia from China; disposable rubber gloves from Malaysia; tobacco products from Malawi; gold from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; cotton products from Turkmenistan; and artisanal rough-cut diamonds from Zimbabwe.
The Pure Circle U.S.A. case involving stevia was CBP’s first formal finding that imposed a monetary penalty in the aftermath of a blocked shipment since passage of the 2016 law, and the first such U.S. action in 25 years.
In a March 2021 report, the Government Accountability Office said CBP’s orders “appear to be an effective mechanism to help prevent the importation of goods produced with forced labor,’’ adding there is evidence that “importers typically stop trying to import goods subject to a (CBP) order about a month after it is issued, which demonstrates (its) deterrent effect.”
Kari Johnstone, the acting director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, said the work of Hinojosa and her team is “really an important piece of the federal government’s efforts to address human trafficking.”
“This group is innovative in its thinking about what kinds of law enforcement actions to take,” Johnstone said. “They show creativity by looking at these problems from a variety of angles … and Ana Hinojosa has been very diplomatic in striking the right balance between her mandate … and wanting to work with the State Department and others to manage various bilateral relationships.”
The CBP established its Forced Labor Division in 2018. Working across the government, it builds cases using data analytics, intelligence, audits, research and fieldwork, and relies on partnerships with civil society and private sector stakeholders.
A great deal of the division’s attention has been focused on Chinese companies or regions of China where human rights violations are rampant, such as Xinjiang, where according to monitoring groups, untold numbers of the Uyghur population are confined to internment camps and deployed as forced labor.
Choy said the CBP’s role is to “investigate and deliver consequences to those folks who don’t play by the rules, and to ensure that America gets a fair shake with regards to trade.”
“There are definitely reverberating effects that have occurred globally from our work, not only in the national conversation, but also internationally,” Choy said. “The U.S. stance has initiated a broader international discussion in partner countries.”
Hinojosa said the stepped-up enforcement is having the effect of generating more reports of forced labor from activists, labor rights organizations and civil society groups. “Now that they know that our law gives us more ability to take action, we’ve been getting a lot of petitions or allegations from certain places around the world,” she said.
Hinojosa added, “We would love to be superheroes and be able to solve forced labor all over the world. We do as much as we can, but our authorities are at the U.S. border. So, we extend our reach by collaborating with our other government agencies to bring a whole of government approach to the issue.”