In a move that Reuters is calling a “rare” anti-slavery crackdown, the United States has stopped the import of goods believed to have been made with forced labor from five countries, including clothing produced in China.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which announced Tuesday that it had issued five Withhold Release Orders (WROs), said the action was prompted by information, procured and reviewed by the agency, that indicated the products had been manufactured using modern slavery, whether in whole or in part.
“A major part of CBP’s mission is facilitating legitimate trade and travel,” Mark Morgan, CBP’s acting commissioner, said in a statement. “CBP’s issuing of these five withhold release orders shows that if we suspect a product is made using forced labor, we’ll take that product off U.S. shelves.”
In addition to garments made by Hetian Taida Apparel Co., a clothing manufacturer in Xinjiang, China, other items seized this week included disposable rubber gloves from Malaysia, gold from small artisanal mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, diamonds from Zimbabwe and bone char from Brazil.
It’s illegal, under a 2016 U.S. law, to import goods into the country that are made entirely or in part by forced labor, a term that covers convict labor, indentured labor and forced or indentured child labor. When “sufficient information” is available, CBP said, the agency may detain goods believed to have been produced with forced labor by issuing a WRO. Importers have the option of re-exporting the detained shipments elsewhere or submitting information that demonstrates the goods are free of forced labor.
Such moves are uncommon, however. A report by the Thomas Reuters Foundation in April revealed that only $6.3 million worth of goods have been blocked since the law banning suspect imports was passed. Before this crackdown took place, CBP had issued just seven detention orders—on items such as chemicals and toys from China and cotton from Turkmenistan—since 2016.
CBP says it is “firmly committed” to identifying and preventing products made with forced labor from entering U.S. markets.
“The effort put into investigating these producers highlights CBP’s priority attention on this issue,” said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner at the CBP Office of Trade. “Our agency works tirelessly behind the scenes to investigate and gather information on forced labor in global supply chains.”
An estimated 24.9 million people around the world are trapped in conditions of modern slavery, according to the International Labour Organization. One in four are children.