US businesses propose hiding trade data used to trace abuse

A group of big US companies want the government to hide key import data – a move trade experts say would make it harder for Americans to link the products they buy to labor abuses abroad.

The Advisory Committee on Trade Customs Operations is composed of executives from 20 companies, including Walmart, General Motors and Intel. The committee is authorized by US Customs and Border Protection to provide advice on tightening trade regulations.

Last week — ahead of closed-door meetings that begin Monday in Washington with senior officials from CBP and other federal agencies — executives quietly unveiled proposals they said would modernize import and export rules to deal with the trade volume, which has nearly quintupled in the past three decades in the US. The Associated Press received a copy of the proposal from a committee member.

Among the proposed changes: Confidentiality of data collected from ship manifests.

The information is vital for researchers and reporters trying to hold companies accountable for worker abuse in their foreign supply chains.

How it works: Journalists document a situation where workers are being forced to work and are unable to leave. They then use the shipping lists to show where the products end up, and sometimes even their brand names and whether they’re on a shelf at a local supermarket or on a clothes rack at a local mall.

The proposal, if passed, would keep secret customs data on ocean freight, which accounts for about half of the $2.7 trillion in goods that enter the United States each year. Rail, truck and air freight are already protected from disclosure under US trade law.

“This is outrageous,” said Martina Vandenberg, a human rights lawyer who has petitioned the CBP to block shipments of goods suspected of being manufactured using forced labor.

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“Each year we continue to import and sell millions of dollars worth of goods contaminated by forced labor,” said Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington. “Corporate America should be ashamed that its response to this abuse is to end transparency. It’s time they got on the right side of history.”

CBP said it would not comment on ideas not formally submitted by its advisory committee, but said the group’s proposals will be developed with input gathered at public meetings.

But one of the CBP’s stated goals in creating what it calls the “21st century tariff framework” is is to increase visibility of global supply chains, support ethical sourcing practices and create a level playing field for domestic US manufacturers.

Reports from the AP and other media outlets have documented how large quantities of clothing, electronics and seafood make their way onto US shelves each year as a result of illegal forced labor, which the International Labor Organization says involves 28 million people worldwide. Much of this investigative work – be it in clothing made by Uyghurs in internment camps cocoa harvested by children in the Xinjiang region of China in Ivory Coast or seafood caught by Filipino fishermen who toil in slave-like conditions — starts with shipping manifests.

“Limiting access to this information will make it harder for the public to monitor a shipping industry that already operates largely in the shadows,” said Peter Klein, a professor at the University of British Columbia, where he researches the “Hidden Costs of Global Supply Chains”. directs Project, an international collaboration between researchers and journalists.

“If anything, CBP should prioritize more transparency and also open up records of air, road and rail shipments.”

In its 34-page presentation, the business advisory body said its goal in further restricting access to customs data is to protect sensitive business information from “privacy breaches,” which it says have “become more commonplace, more serious and more consequential.”

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The group also wants CBP, for the first time, to notify importers in advance if it suspects forced labor is being used. Activists say such a move puts whistleblowers abroad at risk of retaliation.

GM declined to comment and referred all inquiries to the Customs Operations Advisory Committee. Neither Intel nor Walmart have responded to AP requests for comment.

In August alone, CBP targeted more than $266 million worth of shipments for inspection on suspicion of forced labour, including goods subject to the recently passed Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law. In addition, last month the US Department of Labor added 32 products — including acai berries from Brazil, gold from Zimbabwe and tea from India — to its list of goods that may have been manufactured using child or forced labormaking them targets for future enforcement action.

The proposal to keep ship data confidential comes as American companies are under increasing pressure from consumers to provide more transparency into their sourcing practices, reflected in the ambitious language found in many corporate social responsibility statements .

But Vandenberg said the proposed restrictions are consistent with less touted litigation and lobbying efforts by big companies to water down enforcement of the US ban on forced labor.

She cited a brief filed by the US Chamber of Commerce last week, the world’s largest business association, in a case now before a federal appeals panel in Washington. The question is whether tech companies can be held responsible for the deaths and injuries of children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who are forced to mine cobalt that ends up in products sold in the United States

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The lawsuit was filed by families of dead and mutilated children against tech giants Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Apple, Dell Technologies, Microsoft and Tesla under what is known as the US Trafficking Act, which allows victims to sue companies that profit financially from forced labor . The case was dismissed last year after a district judge found the companies had insufficient connections to the tragic working conditions in the DRC.

The Chamber of Commerce urged the Appellate Body to uphold that decision, saying the serious global problem of forced labor is best addressed by private sector, congressional and executive branch initiatives — not U.S. courts.

Such lawsuits “often last for a decade or more and incur significant legal and reputational costs for US companies doing business abroad,” the Chamber of Commerce wrote in a filing by a friendly court.

The discrepancy in regulations for disclosing trade data for various modes of transportation dates back to 1996, when lobbying by the airline industry reversed a law passed by Congress that same year that first required the publication of air cargo manifests.

In 2017, Scottsdale, Arizona-based ImportGenius — a shipping data lookup platform — was among companies unsuccessfully suing the federal government to obtain aircraft manifests.

“Suppressing information about goods coming into our country is breathtakingly stupid,” said Michael Kanko, CEO of ImportGenius. “From discovering human hair imports linked to forced labor, to understanding the flow of PPE during the pandemic, to tracking importers of tainted, deadly dog ​​treats, public access to this data has empowered journalism and protected consumers. We need more transparency in trade, not less.”

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AP writer Martha Mendoza contributed to this report.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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