Transparency of CBP’s Forced Labor Trade Enforcement Needs Improvement, Says GAO

Trade Update • MARCH 10, 2021

.S. Customs and Border Protection should publicly disclose the process for modifying or revoking a Withhold Release Order issued on products suspected of using forced labor entering the United States, according to a report issued last week by the Government Accountability Office.

The GAO report focused on certain aspects of CBP’s communication with other federal government agencies and other stakeholders, which it said lacked transparency.

The government watchdog explained that while the CBP has openly described the processes involved for issuing a WRO, as well the types of information needed for it to modify or revoke the WROs, the agency “has not published a description of its WRO revocation and modification process, comparable to a description of its WRO issuance process posted on its website.”

As a consequence, other agencies and stakeholders lack knowledge of the process and this could, therefore, limit their ability to support CBP’s enforcement and the private sector’s ability to comply with Section 307, the report warned

More Information Needed

The GAO found that although CBP had made a number of efforts to provide some information to other federal agencies and public stakeholders about its process for issuing WROs, more specific details need to be shared concerning the types of information CBP considers when determining whether to launch an investigation or issue a WRO.

In this regard, officials with other government departments said they were unsure about the information they should provide to CBP to support its investigative efforts. Representatives from NGOs and private sector entities likewise told the GAO “that they needed more clarity about the types of information they should submit to CBP to support an allegation of forced labor.”

WRO “Fact Sheet”

As if to illustrate the problem, CBP earlier this month published a fact sheet providing an overview of the modification and revocation process for WROs, but does not contain any specific details when it comes to describing the exact nature of the kind of information and evidence needed to be provided.

Recommendations & Response

Based on its findings, the GAO has recommended that CBP should ensure that the Forced Labor Division makes a description of its WRO revocation and modification process publicly available, to the extent practicable and consistent with relevant requirements of the Privacy Act and Trade Secrets Act. This would, it concludes “increase the process’s transparency and would also enhance agencies’ ability to support CBP’s Section 307 enforcement efforts and the private sector’s ability to comply with the provision.”

The Department of Homeland Security concurred with the GAO’s recommendation while noting that CBP’s efforts to communicate with relevant stakeholders about its enforcement actions have increased as the number of its enforcement actions has grown.

For its part, CBP says it has taken, and will continue to take, steps to improve its information sharing about forced labor enforcement with federal agencies and nonfederal stakeholders. Toward this end, the agency is currently reviewing recommendations made last autumn by the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee and engaging with stakeholders to determine whether and how best to implement them.

Related Information

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