Religion & Liberty Online

Explainer: U.S. Finally Bans Imports of Goods Produced by Slavery and Child Labor

What the story about?

Last week the Senate passed, and President Obama signed into law, a bill that would block imports “made with convict labor, forced labor, or indentured labor.”

The new law is enforceable under Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping multinational trade pact affecting 40 percent of the world’s economy.

What constitutes “forced labor”?

According to 19 U.S. Code § 1307, “Forced labor refers to all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty for its nonperformance and for which the worker does not offer himself voluntarily, including forced or indentured child labor.

Why weren’t such goods already banned?

Among the provisions in the Tariff Act of 1930 (also known as the Smoot–Hawley Tariff), was a ban on the importation of goods made from forced labor. However, that law included an extraordinary exception – the “consumptive demand exception.” Under this clause if there was a demand for a good and it was not created in the U.S., then the product could be imported even if it was made with forced labor. The only goods that were excluded were those that were also made in the U.S.

Why did it take so long to close this loophole?

No one seems to have a good answer for why it 86 years to remove the immoral exception, though some legislators have expressed concerns about it before. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced legislation in 2007 that would have closed the loophole. Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) tried to change the exception in 2013, but it was never included in a final trade bill. Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.) introduced a bill last year that would take it out, but it never got through committee.

What was different this time?

Last year the Associated Press conducted an 18-month investigation on slavery and other abusive practices of the fishing industry in Southeast Asia. Their lengthy expose revealing how American consumers were unwittingly buying fish caught by Asian slaves raised the awareness of the problem and made it difficult for legislators to ignore.

Will the change have any affect?

In the past, the provision was rarely enforced. In the 85 years history of the law, Customs and Border Protection have only used it 39 times to seize shipments where forced labor is suspected and block further imports, notes the AP. In 11 cases, the orders detaining shipments were later revoked.

But increased awareness by both consumers and the governmental about modern slavery may lead to the act being enforced more vigilantly.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).