Home / General / Can We Control Imports Based Upon Labor Standards in Production? Yes.

Can We Control Imports Based Upon Labor Standards in Production? Yes.



There’s no good argument to be made that the United States can’t get a handle on the global exploitation of labor by placing bans on products made under certain conditions or from nations and companies that don’t open their factories to international inspectors. You can argument whether we should or the details about how such a program would work, but there’s no real argument that we can’t do it. That’s because we already do it.

Imports of the sugar substitute stevia, both extracts and derivatives, produced by PureCircle Ltd. in China will be detained at all U.S. ports of entry, after Customs and Border Protection announced June 1 that those products are made with the use of convict labor.

Customs Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske said companies must examine their supply chains “to understand product sourcing and the labor used to generate their products.” He said the agency “is committed to ensuring U.S. values outweigh economic expediency and as part of its trade enforcement responsibilities, will work to ensure products made with forced labor do not cross our borders.”

Producers use the leaves of the stevia plant to produce a sugar substitute.

U.S. law requires Customs to block imports that are made in whole or part by forced labor, including convict labor, indentured labor and forced child labor.

This is a result of the recent bill closing the loophole in the 1930 Tariff Act that allowed prison labor to make products if the products could not be acquired in any other way. China and American companies had blown that loophole wide open and now it is closed. If we care about labor standards overseas, if we don’t want 1100 workers to die when their factory collapses upon them, if we don’t want children to be exposed to massive pollution at school from clothing produced for the American market, etc., we can make the choice to stop it. We simply don’t make that choice. We don’t even have a national conversation around it. Closing the prison labor loophole and banning products made by convicts is not the end of creating international labor standards that provide workers dignity. It’s just the very beginning.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • J. Otto Pohl

    Of course like most other policy problems it is a matter of political will. But, I don’t see it becoming an issue that politicians embrace any time soon. Occasionally there is sufficient publicity and pressure from below on individual cases like South Africa in the 1980s or Chinese prison labor to effect bans on some imports. Note here that it took many years for the South African sanctions to get a crtitical mass in the US Congress. But, a wholesale trade policy aimed at only importing goods made in accordance to humane labour standards is a much harder sell and no politician looks to be buying soon. Now granted long term say 20 year from now it quite possible that grass roots mobilization could change that. It will, however, take more work than just voting D and hoping they do the right thing.

  • Bruce Vail

    Imports of goods made with child labor are also technically illegal.

    There is plenty of precedent for the notion that the USA can bar goods based on illegal/unfair labor practices.

    • Brett

      And of course there’s other precedents as well. The US has a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which they’ve not only applied against US companies, but foreign companies with a significant US presence. I don’t see how something similar couldn’t be set up for environmental standards, or labor standards.

    • DrDick

      There are a whole lot of human rights agreements to which the US is a signatory that contain labor protects and could be used to ban these kinds of products.

  • burnspbesq

    It is theoretically possible, but I’m sure you can count to 218 (which implicitly assumes that you can count to 60).

    Still, this is a windmill worth tilting at.

  • Bruce Vail

    Of course, the US bans imports of goods from entire countries, based on political considerations (Cuba, North Korea, etc.).

    There is no reason that such politics-inspired bans couldn’t be extended to chronic labor scoff-laws, say Bangla Desh.

  • asifis

    Interesting they would go after stevia. Some claim it was banned for years because of Donald Rumsfeld’s profiting from aspartame, which is far more hazardous. Not that I want to use forced labor produced stevia, but there must be any number of products they could reasonably halt the import of.

  • galanx

    Not to mention the good ol’ US sugar lobby, always protecting it’s profits and subsidies from competition. (Not questioning this stuff is made by prison labour, and should be banned, just joining asifis in speculating as to why this particular product was singled out.)

It is main inner container footer text