Big Corporations Want to Hide Trade Data Used to Trace Goods Made with Forced Labor

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Oct 19 2022 |
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The Associated Press reports that an official committee of big-name businesses are quietly pushing for data on ocean freight to become confidential, making it harder to track abuse.

You’ve probably never heard of the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee.

I’ll be honest: I hadn’t either, until Tuesday morning. But as it turns out, the committee is pretty influential, as it advises the Treasury Department and Department of Homeland Security on the commercial operations of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Current members of the committee include representatives of big corporations like Walmart, General Motors, American Airlines, Kohler, Caterpillar, Amazon and Intel.

The Associated Press (AP) unveiled a bombshell of a report about the committee this week: Members are oh-so-quietly pushing U.S. Customs to hide critical trade data that is used by human rights advocates, journalists, and others to trace whether goods being imported into the United States are connected to forced labor.

AP reporter Joshua Goodman has the details:

Last week — ahead of closed-door meetings starting Monday in Washington with senior officials from CBP and other federal agencies — the executives quietly unveiled proposals they said would modernize import and export rules to keep pace with trade volumes that have nearly quintupled in the past three decades. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the proposal from a committee member.

Among the proposed changes: making data collected from vessel manifests confidential.

The information is vitally important for researchers and reporters seeking to hold corporations accountable for the mistreatment of workers in their foreign supply chains…

The proposal, if adopted, would shroud in secrecy customs data on ocean-going freight responsible for about half of the $2.7 trillion in goods entering the U.S. every year. Rail, truck and air cargo is already shielded from public disclosure under U.S. trade law.

It’s hard not to ignore the timing of this, as U.S. Customs began enforcing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in June.

That law — which passed Congress nearly unanimously and was signed by President Biden in December — bans all products from the Xinjiang region of China, where a genocide is taking place and forced labor is rampant, unless importers can definitively prove their goods aren’t made with forced labor.

But complying with the law has been a challenge for some corporations. Shipments of goods like solar panels, which repeatedly have been connected to forced labor, have been detained at the border.

And there’s another layer to all of this.

Back in 2020, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute unveiled a highly regarded report, Uyghurs for Sale, which identified 82 companies “potentially directly or indirectly” benefiting from forced Uyghur labor, including some of the members on the very committee that is now working to hide key trade data.

Weird, right? Representatives of companies who have been accused of importing goods made with forced Uyghur labor are suddenly now pushing for the data that tracks those imports to be pulled from public view? Totally bizarre!

The committee is framing the proposal as a way to “protect confidential business information from ‘data breaches,'” the AP reports. It also wants Customs “to provide importers with advance notice whenever it suspects forced labor is being used. Activists say such a move puts whistleblowers overseas at risk of retaliation,” according to the AP.

The committee’s proposals are obscene. Curtailing access to this critical data will only complicate efforts to track goods made with forced labor, and giving importers advance notice on potential Customs actions will only help wrongdoers better cover their tracks.

It’s not just the ability to track goods made in Xinjiang that would be impacted if this trade data became unavailable. As the AP notes, the Labor Department recently unveiled a new report naming 32 products from all over the globe that were made or possibly made with child labor. In August 2022 alone, U.S. Customs officials targeted shipments valued at $266 million that were suspected of being made with forced labor.

Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, summed it all up:

“Every year we continue to import and sell millions of dollars in goods tainted by forced labor. Corporate America should be ashamed that their answer to this abuse is to end transparency. It’s time they get on the right side of history.”

You can help. Please join us in telling U.S. Customs and Border Protection to fully enforce the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.