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Why ‘Collective Outrage’ Erupted Over This Polarizing Shipping Proposal

A group of 40 environmental and human-rights groups, including Greenpeace, the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum and the Uyghur Human Rights Project, fired off an open letter expressing its “collective outrage” over a proposal by major U.S. businesses to obscure data collected from shipping manifests—the same ones that researchers and journalists rely on to sniff out potential human-rights abuses lurking in global supply chains.

The Associated Press reported last week that the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee (COAC), a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) advisory board comprising executives from 20 companies, including Walmart, General Motors and Intel, has been lobbying to conceal from public view customs data on ocean-going freight that makes up roughly half of the $2.7 trillion in goods that enters the country every year. Restricting access to customs data, which is already the case with air, road and rail cargo, it argued, will safeguard confidential business information from “data breaches” as they become “more commonplace, severe and consequential.”

“Public disclosure of import/export data is critical to tracing and monitoring forced labor risks in supply chains. Transparency of trade data is already far too limited,” said the letter, which is directed at CBP commissioner Chris Magnus, on Thursday. U.S. law, it pointed out, already grants both importers and shippers the right to request confidentiality of their data on a case-by-case basis. The “trajectory” should be “more transparency, not less,” it added.

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“We advocate for disclosure of air, road, and rail manifests, in addition to maritime vessel manifests, while the COAC proposal seeks to shroud all import data behind a thick veil of secrecy,” the organizations said. “We urge CBP to reject calls for more ‘confidentiality’ and instead disclose all types of customs data—air, rail, maritime and road—to the public. In addition, we urge CBP not to fall prey to proposals that will drive up the procedural complexity of the forced labor enforcement process, placing burdens both on CBP and civil society that are intended to operate as barriers to the enforcement of existing law.”

Other “problematic” legislative amendments COAC has put forward, such as giving importers advance notice whenever CBP suspects that forced labor is involved, could “derail” forced labor investigations and enforcement under Section 307 of the 1930 U.S. Tariff Act, as well as under the Uyghur Forced Labor Protection Act, which became law on June 21.

“The amendments in question would profoundly hobble the agency’s ability to enforce forced labor laws, as well as the ability of civil society to share evidence of forced labor in U.S. supply chains,” the letter said. “As the agency charged with the enforcement of these laws, CBP’s perspective is given a great deal of weight, both within the administration and on Capitol Hill, and it is absolutely critical that CBP reject these proposed changes outright.”

In short, U.S. companies cannot publicly claim to oppose forced labor while asking the government to protect their supply chains from scrutiny, especially if hiding trade data serves no legitimate public purpose, the letter said, calling the suggestion a “shameful example of corporate overreach to protect profits by disabling efforts to hold perpetrators accountable.”

Allison Gill, forced labor program director at the Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, said that COAC’s proposal was “really shocking” in light of the “massive forced labor problem” plaguing global operations. It was only last month that the International Labour Organization revealed that forced labor across the world has spiked over the past five years. Nearly 28 million people toil under conditions of forced labor on “any given day,” many of them in textiles, agriculture and mining.

“Not to mention the Uyghur issue,” Gill, whose organization is a member of the Coalition to End Forced Labour in the Uyghur Region, told Sourcing Journal. “What is the industry’s response, change their behavior or hide the problem? What we need for more effective enforcement is more transparency. We know that CBP relies on civil society to support its own investigations. Right now, rail, road, air freight—all this stuff is escaping because [the information is] not accessible to us.”

Across the pond, two organizations—the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) and the World Uyghur Congress—will be hauling the British government into court at the end of the month to answer charges that it hasn’t done enough to prevent forced-labor goods from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region from entering the United Kingdom.

“Customs authorities are failing to live up to their obligations under international law to stop imports of products made in conditions so appalling and coercive they amount to crimes against humanity,” said GLAN legal officer Siobhan Allen, pointing to the Foreign Prison-Made Goods Act, which prohibits the importation of goods produced in foreign prisons, as well as the Proceeds of Crime Act, which prevents criminals and their associates from profiting from crimes.

“The time [is] long past for burying their heads in the sand: the evidence of what is happening in the Uyghur region is so overwhelming, authorities must take action—now,” she added.

The Oct. 25-26 hearing will mark the first time Uyghur representatives will testify about their persecution, which many have dubbed genocide, in a foreign courtroom. The case, GLAN said, “stands to rewrite the relationship between the U.K. high street and forced labor goods.”

“The hearing…is important because it’s important to hold the U.K. government to account for its failure to tackle the issue of Uyghur forced labor in U.K. supply chains, particularly Uyghur-forced-labor-made cotton in U.K. supply chains,” said Isabela Rodrigues, U.K. office coordinator at World Uyghur Congress and strategic advisor for the Stop Uyghur Genocide coalition.

“We’ve contacted the government time and time again about this exact issue and you often get the same response: the U.K. government is doing enough, we have these modern slavery protocols in place,” she said. “But what we see in practice is that’s not actually doing much to deal with what’s a mass crisis, which is our market being proliferated with Uyghur-forced-labor-picked cotton.”

In the rest of Europe, a similar question is brewing about whether existing or proposed due diligence controls are going far enough.

More than 70 civil-society groups, including the Clean Clothes Campaign, for instance, recently urged the European Commission to level up its proposed legislation to ban goods made with forced labor to include greater consideration for supply-chain workers, including redress for victims of exploitation.

Earlier this week, Amfiori, the Ethical Trading Initiative, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Transformers Foundation and manufacturer associations from the Sustainable Terms of Trade Initiative called on European lawmakers to pivot the upcoming Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive from a relationship-based to a “genuinely” risk-based approach.

“One of the problems in the garment and textile industry is that most relationships are transactional, and contracts rare,” they wrote in their joint recommendations. “By only imposing a due diligence duty on companies in case of established relationships, companies could be invited to actively avoid these, or at best, to look for risks and impacts primarily among their strategic suppliers and other proximate relationships, ignoring risks of (potential) adverse impacts in more remote parts of the value chain, where they are often more severe.”

The current practice of many garment and textile companies, they said, shows that the due diligence concept of prioritization based on severity is critical in making due diligence “manageable for business, while addressing the most salient risks to people.”

“Moreover, companies already performing their due diligence have been doing so according to these international standards,” the organizations said. “They have had almost a decade of practical experience with applying them and have developed processes and tools with these standards in mind. An EU directive should reward these efforts, and expect all companies to adopt this same internationally accepted approach.”

The organizations, whose members make up more than half of extra-EU imports of garments and textiles, said they would like to see future legislation tackle purchasing practices—and the power differential between buyers and suppliers. In the current context, however, companies should not be allowed to shift their responsibility to others, whether suppliers, industry schemes or multi-stakeholder groups.

Most of all, they asked for “certainty and clarity” in the proposal that doesn’t leave room for multiple interpretations of concepts such as “partner,” “indirect partner” and “established relationship,” which will “not lead to the desired level playing field” among member states.

“In a worst-case scenario, enterprises may be facing up to 27 national versions of the due diligence legislation, with 27 different monitoring and sanctioning regimes, as well as 28 different sets of guidelines, should the [European Commission] choose to provide these as well,” the organization said. “We strongly support one set of guidelines at EU-level to provide clear and coherent guidance for [member states] and companies.”