U.S. Producers Urge CBP to Reject COAC Forced Labor Recommendations

Tug of War Over Forced Labor-Focus on China

Trade Update • March 28, 2021

Recommendations made public earlier this month by the Forced Labor Working Group of the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee regarding enforcement of the prohibition on importation of goods produced through forced labor are being blasted by some U.S. producers as “embarrassing” and “disingenuous.” Arguing that COAC’s proposals would further complicate and effectively hinder enforcement efforts, the groups are urging U.S. Customs and Border Protection to reject them.


Forced labor enforcement has been been an area of growing concern to CBP in recent years. One indication of its increasing importance is the agency’s stated intent to add forced labor to its list of Priority Trade Issues.

Defined by CBP as “high-risk areas that can cause significant revenue loss, harm the U.S. economy, or threaten the health and safety of the American people,” these currently include: 1) agriculture and quota; (2) antidumping and countervailing duties; (3) free trade agreements; (4) import safety; (5) intellectual property rights; (6) revenue; and (7) textiles and wearing apparel. According to CBP, PRIs “drive risk-informed investment of CBP resources and enforcement and facilitation efforts.”

As CBP proceeds in this direction, COAC, the private-sector group that advises various government entities regarding commercial customs operations, issued a series of recommendations that it stated were intended to help “ensure a more holistic U.S. government-wide approach to addressing forced labor.”

COAC’s Recommendations

The COAC working group’s report made four specific recommendations that it said should be considered by the agency in connection with treating forced labor as a PRI; namely, that CBP should:

  • Take a collaborative, multi-agency approach with various agencies including the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and develop a synchronized strategy across the government on forced labor.
  • Expand communication and cooperation with trade sectors and industries to identify best practices, as highlighted in the Industry Collaboration White Paper.
  • Develop an objective methodology to measure the success of CBP’s forced labor informed compliance, facilitation, enforcement, and risk mitigation that is not based on enforcement output (e.g. number of Withold Release Orders and detentions issued).
  • Apply the same principles, tools, guidance, and outreach to forced labor as is the case with the other Priority Trade Issues.

Domestic Producers Fire Back

In a March 16 letter to CBP, the Coalition for a Prosperous America—a non-partisan advocacy group representing manufacturing, agricultural, worker, consumer, and citizen interests—dismissed the recommendations, saying they “reflect a troubling and continued COAC prioritization of trade facilitation and cheap importation of goods over trade enforcement at every opportunity.”

Noting at the outset that key leaders of COAC “are dependent on the good graces of the Chinese Communist
Party” owing to their firms’ involvement in the Chinese market, CPA took issue with each recommendation, singling out two in particular for scorn.

COAC’s call for more “government to industry efforts to minimize forced labor in supply chains” is “completely backwards,” according to CPA, as it “shifts responsibility away from culpable parties.” Rather than following the recommended course of action, “Americans would be best served by increased efforts by industry to make transparent their supply chains,” the group retorted.

As for the COAC’s recommendation that CBP gauge success in this area by metrics other than the number of WROs and detentions issued, but rather on “whether enforcement actions actually result in a reduction of or the elimination of forced labor, at the locations of alleged violators,” CPA officials said this was “morally reprehensible”

“Every time a product made in part with forced labor is denied entry into the commerce of the United States, that is a success,” declared the group. To suggest otherwise—as COAC appeared to by using so-called scare quotes (or air quotes; also problematic) around the word “success” in its recommendation—indicates “that they do not see any inherent virtue in keeping products made with forced labor off of American store shelves,” CPA charged.

The Southern Shrimp Alliance, a group representing the domestic industry that has long worked to eliminate slavery and forced child labor in shrimp supply chains, echoed CPA’s concerns in a March 22 letter to CBP expressing “deep disappointment” with COAC’s recommendations. By its estimation, each of them “appears designed to complicate and further limit the agency’s ability to effectively enforce [the law].”

While refusing to speculate on the motivations behind COAC’s “embarrassing” proposals, in SSA’s view “they seem to be of a piece of a general overall attitude by U.S. importers to try and ride out the current widespread public outrage regarding the prevalence of slave, forced, and child labor in foreign supply chains without making any serious efforts to address the problem.”

Need More Information?

Should you have any questions about mitigating the risk of forced labor inputs entering your supply chain, don’t hesitate to contact one of our knowledgeable trade experts.

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