Yesterday, as part of its annual Virtual Trade Week series, US Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) issued a list of Frequently Asked Questions on forced labor (“the FAQs”). The FAQs consist of responses to ten questions focused on current issues and latest developments in forced labor enforcement. As mentioned in the FAQs, in FY2020 (October 1, 2019 – September 30, 2020), CBP set a record by issuing 13 Withhold Release Orders (“WROs”), detaining over $55 million worth of goods, and issuing its first finding in nearly 25 years. According to the FAQs, CBP is also currently enforcing 50 active WROs and eight active forced labor findings.
Below are some of the key takeaways from the FAQs:
- CBP has reiterated that it remains committed to ongoing forced labor enforcement efforts, which CBP says are designed to “persuade companies to modify their business practices.” In addition, CBP has restated the joint commitment of the US, Canada and Mexico to addressing forced labor matters, and noted ongoing “discussions of forced labor enforcement” with partner countries in Europe and Asia.
- CBP encourages importers to implement “social compliance programs” that can identify, mitigate, and remediate forced labor. Remediating forced labor in supply chains is important; however, CBP will not allow the importation of goods suspected of being mined, produced, or manufactured with forced labor in the course of remediation.
- While companies are not required to make a voluntary disclosure (also known as “prior disclosure”) if forced labor is discovered in their supply chains, a valid prior disclosure will be taken into account by CBP, and any material false statements, acts, or omissions in connection with importations can result in penalties.
- Foreign companies seeking to be excluded from a WRO’s scope can submit to CBP specific information regarding their production process, including: (i) evidence refuting each identified indicator of forced labor (see, for example, the International Labour Organization’s indicators of forced labor here); (ii) evidence that policies, procedures, and controls are in place to ensure that forced labor conditions are remediated; (iii) evidence of implementation and subsequent verification by an unannounced and independent third-party auditor; and (iv) supply chain maps that specify locations of manufacturers, factories, farms, and processing centers.
- Currently, CBP is not seeking to petition Congress for an expansion of statutory authority for the enforcement of forced labor of goods imported into the United States.
- Although CBP has investigated and issued WROs against goods found on the US Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor, its investigations are not limited to the goods on this list. CBP also uses information from other sources, such as nongovernmental and civil society organizations, open-source information, witness testimony, trade data, and records of importers to validate allegations of forced labor.
- CBP encourages companies to “prioritize” suppliers that have negotiated a “collective agreement” with unions, noting that “freedom of association is considered fundamental to ending forced labor.”
- CBP will only modify a WRO or finding if all forced labor indicators identified by the agency are remediated and forced labor is no longer occurring.
- CBP emphasizes its belief that there is “ample evidence-based research” showing that social audits are “ineffective” as currently administered in identifying and reducing forced labor. Instead, CBP recommends that companies focus on “worker-driven solutions,” citing as examples the Fair Food Program and Bangladesh Accord.
The FAQs make clear that CBP remains committed to combatting forced labor, expects companies to implement compliance programs that identify and remediate forced labor in supply chains, and is working with other U.S. agencies and countries around the world to beef up enforcement efforts. Forced labor enforcement on the rise, and given the continued pressures from civil society, shareholders, and consumers, that trend is unlikely to change. To avoid potential civil and criminal liability, as well as adverse press, companies should implement risk-based responsible sourcing programs that prohibit suppliers from utilizing forced labor and other related human rights abuses and implement practical mechanisms to verify their compliance.