The Associated Press (AP) reported Tuesday that a coalition of major U.S. companies, including Walmart and General Motors, is quietly lobbying the government to make certain import data confidential — a change that would make it much more difficult for journalists and human rights activists to link imported goods to abusive labor practices abroad, including forced labor in China’s Xinjiang province and child labor in Africa.
Human rights lawyer Martina Vandenberg called the closed-door proposals “outrageous” and said American corporations should be “ashamed that their answer to this abuse is to end transparency.”
“Curtailing access to this information will make it harder for the public to monitor a shipping industry that already functions largely in the shadows,” agreed University of British Columbia professor Peter Klein, a prominent analyst of global supply chains.
In essence, the corporate executives who make up the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee proposed “modernizing” import/export procedures in a variety of ways, one of which would make “data collected from vessel manifests confidential.”
This would frustrate the current practice of journalists using shipping manifests to determine where goods manufactured or harvested with abusive labor practices were sent, a key tactic in pressuring U.S. companies to stop allowing forced labor into their supply chains.
As the AP pointed out, this seems directly contrary to CBP’s commitment to “boost visibility into global supply chains, support ethical sourcing practices and level the playing field for domestic U.S. manufacturers.” Corporate public relations departments have also been assuring American consumers they wish to cleanse their supply chains of forced labor and child labor.
The advisory committee suggested making customs data confidential would protect American businesses from data theft, which has become “more commonplace, severe, and consequential.”
The AP noted the committee also proposed rules that would require CBP to give advance notice to importers when it suspects they have purchased goods produced through abusive labor practices, a seemingly reasonable request that could imperil whistleblowers because abusive suppliers could be tipped off about complaints and investigations.
Labor activists complain tracking down and prosecuting abuse is already extremely difficult. Some seemingly clear-cut, high-profile lawsuits have been dismissed by judges because the evidence was not airtight enough. On the other hand, importers complain that lawsuits are fantastically expensive and can take years to resolve.
The U.S. Department of Labor in late September announced new initiatives to crack down on forced and child labor, including new reports identifying some of the most problematic regions of the world.
Both U.S. and international analysts believe abusive labor practices have grown more widespread over the past few years. The latest edition of the Labor Department’s list of goods tainted with child or forced labor added 32 more items to a roster that already included 158 products from 77 countries.
One of the top headlines in the struggle against labor abuses was the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), which took effect in June 2022. The UFLPA effectively assumes all products from China’s Xinjiang province, which the indigenous population call East Turkistan, are tainted by labor coerced from the Uyghur Muslims and other oppressed minorities, challenging importers to prove otherwise.
Xinjiang is by no means the only area of concern in the world. Another is the alleged use of child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to mine cobalt, a mineral in high demand for use in rechargeable batteries. Many of the estimated 40,000 children employed in DRC cobalt mining are reportedly digging with their bare hands.
Another industry of great concern is acai berry harvesting in Brazil. Acai berries, which have become one of the most popular “superfoods” for their pleasing taste and antioxidant qualities, grow near the top of South American palm trees that can exceed 60 feet in height. Adults are too heavy to reach the fragile tops of these trees, so children are tasked with climbing their trunks and using saw blades to cut the berries loose.
This practice is every bit as dangerous as it sounds, especially since venomous snakes and insects infest the dense forests, along with quite a few venomous people. Poor local families are willing to risk their children for low wages in an almost completely unregulated industry to obtain the berries, even though the injury rate for tree-climbers is horrific, and repeatedly climbing the trees can actually stunt a child’s growth.
Numerous complaints have been filed against Zimbabwe’s gold mining industry for using child labor, and many of the mines are owned by Chinese companies that have been accused of severely abusing local employees. Independent or “artisanal” gold mining, which sees desperately poor families sending young children to pan for gold along river banks, is illegal in Zimbabwe, but the practice is so widespread that the authorities cannot control it.