It was recently reported that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the ports of LA and Long Beach has “well over 100 shipments on hold pending determination of admissibility“ due to suspicion of forced labor. Despite being enforced since 1930, compliance with forced labor laws and regulations are still an ongoing problem.
A newly introduced congressional bill, U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260), which focuses on several trade initiatives including 301 tariff exclusions, would specifically establish a Forced Labor Division within the Office of Trade of CBP. The Forced Labor Division would prioritize investigations and work closely with the Bureau of International Labor Affairs. With the establishment of a Forced Labor Division, there is more enforcement on this issue coming as resources are increased.
Importers must understand their responsibilities related to vetting suppliers for forced labor or face potential penalties for non-compliance.
What is forced labor and how are products flagged?
Forced labor is when a product is mined, produced, or manufactured, in a municipality that has unlawful labor practices such as slave labor or child labor.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) published a booklet identifying common signs that could indicate forced labor. They include:
- Abuse of vulnerability
- Restriction of movement
- Physical and sexual violence
- Intimidation and threats
- Retention of identity documents
- Withholding of wages
- Debt bondage
- Abusive working and living conditions
- Excessive overtime
If any part of your imported goods were subject to forced labor, wholly or in part, anywhere throughout your supply chain, your goods could be detained or seized with a Withhold Release Order (WRO) or as a Finding.
Understanding Withhold Release Orders (WRO’s)
A WRO is issued against a foreign manufacturer by CBP when they have a reasonable suspicion of forced labor being used to produce the imported product including tracing back to the materials used.
If the product imported has a WRO issued against the manufacturer for that product, the importer can re-export the freight or must prove the cargo in question was not made with forced labor.
To contest the WRO, sufficient evidence is needed to prove admissibility of the product from the manufacturer for a specific shipment. For admissibility, an importer has three months to demonstrate that detained merchandise was not produced with forced labor. The importer must also demonstrate that the supplier is not included on the WRO. Supporting documentation should be submitted in a clear and concise manner so that CBP can quickly and easily review it. Keep in mind that while this process is taking place the container is accruing storage, demurrage and detention charges.
Additionally, a foreign manufacturer can have a Finding action issued against them. This means CBP has determined there is probable cause that forced labor was used in the manufacturing of the specific imported good.
Upon arrival into the United States, the cargo is subject to seizure by CBP and treated as an importation prohibited by 19 U.S.C 1307. There is not an opportunity to export the goods under a Finding.
The freight will be seized, and the importer could face a potential penalty for importing goods made with forced labor into the United States. A potential mitigating factor is if the importer can show the due diligence they used to vet the supplier for potential forced labor actions which should include the use of a third-party auditor.
Your role as an importer in maintaining forced labor compliance
Remaining compliant and avoiding detained or seized cargo, penalties, and fees starts by understanding your role and responsibilities when it comes to forced labor laws.
Below are steps you can take to be prepared:
- Review the Sweat & Toil app.
This free download to your phone can help you know about potential commodities that are suspected of forced labor or goods produced with child labor. It also includes useful information on forced labor efforts and initiatives.
- Audit your supply chain suppliers and manufacturers.
The most effective way to do this is to develop a questionnaire based on the ILO forced labor indicators and outline the process for how your product is produced. If you catch any red flags through this process, discuss with your supplier how they will rectify the situation. You can also utilize the U.S. Department of Labor’s Comply Chain website.
- Work on a modification process with suppliers that have a WRO or Finding against them.
The supplier will have to prove to CBP that the forced labor indicator no longer exists within the supply chain. Learn more about what this entails using CBP’s WRO Modification/Revocation Processes Overview document.
- Construct a process for implementing and monitoring for compliance.
Establishing an ongoing routine can help maintain and monitor compliance.
- Find and review other helpful resources.
Visit the CBP website for many useful resources and information on forced labor, including:
- Forced Labor | U.S. Customs and Border Protection (cbp.gov)
- Responsible Business Practices on Forced Labor
- The Active WRO’s and Findings List
- Fact Sheet: Helpful Hints for Submitting Proof of Admissibility
- Reasonable Care Informed Compliance Publication
Final thoughts on forced labor compliance
Now is the time to ensure compliance, make changes as needed, and mitigate your potential risk and penalties from forced labor.
You’re not on your own. The steps to compliance can seem complicated and the consequences for non-compliance can be overwhelming, but our Trusted Advisor® trade experts are here to help.
At C.H. Robinson we have proven policies and procedures around forced labor compliance. We can help you develop the in-house procedures you need to become complaint and stay compliant.
As international trade topics continues to shift, stay up to date with weekly updates on our Trade & Tariff Insights page.