The United States seems to have a complicated relationship with overseas slave labor.
Despite having a law that barred products made by “convict, forced or indentured labor,” the country has been importing slave-produced goods for 85 years — thanks to a loophole that exempted such products because of the “consumptive demand.”
However, as a part of the flurry of recent actions by the White House, President Barack Obama finally banned the goods produced by forced labor from entering the country, striking a blow against global slavery.
The bill, signed Wednesday, serves as a model for how government accountability should work. Also, it is technically an amendment to the pre-existing 1930 Tariff Act that has largely gone unenforced for past 85 years.
“The mere deterrent effect of closing this loophole is a great step forward,” explained Gil Kerlikowske, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “We're going to make sure that is heavily noted throughout the world.”
The issue of global slavery drew major attention last year after different investigations exposed Thai companies who had been shipping seafood caught and processed by enslaved workers.
With U.S. being the single biggest customer of Thai seafood, the imported items were sold in grocery stores like Walmart and Whole Foods, while pet food sold by brands including Meow Mix also used seafood from the same source.
“It's a really big deal,” said Annick Febrey, senior associate at the advocacy group Human Rights First, noting the new law could keep at bay billions of dollars worth of goods produced by forced labor. “While we as a country have said that we are against slavery, we've had this little-known rule in the Tariff Act.”
The amendment does not directly ban slave labor aboard fishing ships, since the U.S. does not have jurisdiction overseas, but it does ban imports of fish caught by slaves in Southeast Asia, the gold mined by children in Africa and garments sewn by abused women in Bangladesh.
“It's embarrassing that for 85 years, the United States let products made with forced labor into this country, and closing this loophole gives the U.S. an important tool to fight global slavery,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D).
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has already been asked to enforce the new rules when the law takes effect in 15 days.