A week following a finding by U.S. Customs and Border Protection accusing a state-owned Chinese company of using “convict, forced, or indentured labor” in Inner Mongolia to manufacture products that could be exported to the U.S., a new report by the Government Accountability Office says that CBP’s forced labour enforcement operations are being undermined by staff shortages that have resulted in investigations being suspended or not carried out at all.
While acknowledging that CBP has increased the forced labour division’s financial and personnel resources, the GAO report found that in the two years since being established, the agency “has not undergone and documented a needs assessment to identify gaps in its workforce, and does not have a reasonable assurance that it has the right number of people, with the right skills, in the right places.”
In addition, the GAO determined that CBP relies on information that is “incomplete and inconsistent” to manage its workload and performance. About 80% of suspended cases were found to be missing data on the sources of evidence used during the investigation, according to the report, which also notes that of these cases, the division suspended more than 70% due to a lack of personnel resources.
Furthermore, the GAO determined that CBP doesn’t currently set baseline targets for key performance indicators, and may, therefore, “be unable to assess performance and efficiently use division resources to achieve its objectives.” CBP needs to improve its performance management in this area as it continues the development of its workforce and goals, GAO suggested.
Forced labour is a pressing global humanitarian concern that involves all types of economic activity and affects an estimated 25 million people. When used in the production of goods, it is also a persistent economic problem that harms the competitiveness of U.S. businesses. According to the U.S. government, forced labour or child labour is used in the production of nearly 150 types of goods in 76 countries, and the ILO estimates that forced labour generates global profits of $150 billion every year.
Following the enactment of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act in 2016, which removed a loophole that had previously allowed items made with forced labour to be imported under certain circumstances, CBP initiated a task force eventually leading to the Forced Labor Division’s creation in 2018 and stepped up its efforts to enforce the newly amended prohibition on goods made with forced labour.
Since 2018, the division conducted more than five times as many investigations as the CBP had in previous years, issuing Withhold Release Orders for a variety of merchandise, mostly from China, but also certain goods from Brazil, Turkmenistan, Malaysia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, and Zimbabwe.
GAO was asked by Congressional lawmakers earlier this year to review the status of DHS resources for implementing the prohibition on forced labor imports, the outcomes of CBP’s enforcement efforts, and the extent to which its progress is being monitored by the agency.
Recommendations & Response
Based on its findings, the GAO recommended that CBP:
- assess the workforce needs of the Forced Labor Division to identify potential gaps;
- improve the completeness, consistency, and accuracy of its case data on active, suspended, and inactive forced labor investigations; and
- set targets for key performance indicators related to enforcement of the prohibition on forced labor imports.
CBP concurred with the three recommendations and in its response outlined some of the efforts currently being made to address the various problem issues raised by the report.