Southern Shrimp Alliance Opposes Recommendations of COAC’s Forced Labor Working Group

Earlier today, the Southern Shrimp Alliance issued a letter to the Forced Labor Division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Trade Remedy Law Enforcement Directorate (TRLED) expressing support for the agency’s intention to make forced labor a priority trade issue, joining agriculture/quota enforcement; antidumping and countervailing duties; free trade agreements; import safety; intellectual property rights; revenue; and textiles and wearing apparel. The Southern Shrimp Alliance explained that the designation of antidumping and countervailing duties as a priority trade issue has facilitated the allocation and dedication of CBP resources to address illicit efforts by foreign exporters and U.S. importers to evade trade relief. CBP’s improved enforcement efforts have enhanced the utility of trade remedies intended to assist domestic industries suffering material injury from unfairly traded imports. Accordingly, in keeping with the importance to Americans of preventing goods produced through slave and forced child labor from entering the U.S. market, the agency’s formal confirmation that forced labor is a priority trade issue is a vital step in augmenting CBP’s enforcement of our laws.

At the same time, the Southern Shrimp Alliance expressed deep disappointment and strong opposition to the recommendations made by the Forced Labor Working Group of the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee (COAC) to CBP regarding enforcement of the prohibition on importation of goods produced through forced labor, found at 19 U.S.C. § 1307. As a working group comprised of private businesses and non-governmental organizations, the Forced Labor Working Group provides CBP with a forum in which to interact with the trade community and receive feedback on proposed initiatives. In a paper made public as part of COAC’s March 17, 2021 quarterly meeting, the Forced Labor Working Group issued four recommendations to CBP in response to the agency’s stated intent to designate forced labor as a priority trade issue. First, the Working Group requested that CBP “take a collaborative, multi-agency approach” to enforcement of Section 1307. Second, the Working Group asked CBP to “expand its collaboration and communication with trade sectors/industries . . .” regarding “industry efforts to minimize forced labor in supply chains . . .” Third, the Working Group recommended that CBP “develop an objective methodology to measure ‘success’ in combatting forced labor in the supply chain” with “[s]uccessful measures . . . based on outcome efforts (whether enforcement actions actually result in a reduction of or the elimination of forced labor, at the location of the alleged violators) that ultimately focus on the improvement of the communities this illegal practice most impacts, rather than the number of withhold release orders and detentions issued.” Fourth, and finally, the Working Group advised that CBP’s approach to forced labor be like that of the agency’s approach to other priority trade issues, rooted in its “world class expertise to design trade processed and policies that minimize cost and provide certainty, transparency, security, and predictability to members of the trade community.”

The Southern Shrimp Alliance noted that these recommendations, on the whole, appeared to be designed to complicate and limit CBP’s ability to enforce the prohibition on imports of goods produced through forced labor. At a minimum, the recommendations of the Working Group were not reasonably calibrated to increase enforcement.

The Southern Shrimp Alliance explained that CBP has already implemented an extensive collaborative, multi-agency approach to the enforcement of Section 1307 that involves monthly inter-agency meetings on the subject, with two weeks prior notice to other agencies before the agency formally issues a Withhold Release Order.

Of greater concern was the Working Group’s recommendation regarding “outcome metrics” divorced from actual enforcement of the provisions of Section 1307. By enacting a statutory provision prohibiting the importation of goods produced through forced labor, Congress tasked CBP with preventing such goods from entering the United States market. The only way that CBP’s implementation of that Congressional mandate can be measured is through reference to the actual enforcement efforts undertaken by CBP, inclusive of the number of withhold release orders issued and detentions made. The Working Group’s efforts to inject non-statutory “outcome metrics” into CBP’s administration of Section 1307 constitutes a blatant attempt to sabotage the TRLED’s Forced Labor Division’s substantially improved enforcement efforts.

The Southern Shrimp Alliance’s letter expressed concern that these disingenuous recommendations were part and parcel of an overall importer strategy to stall for time and wait out public outrage at the extent to which slave and forced child labor has polluted foreign supply chains. The Southern Shrimp Alliance noted that despite the seafood import community’s repeated claims of an unwavering commitment to addressing labor abuse whenever the subject is raised, before other federal agencies seafood importers openly trumpet the industry’s continued reliance on supply chains that present massive risks for forced labor. As just one grotesque example, despite the U.S. International Trade Commission’s recent observation that “[p]rocessing sector labor violations, particularly child labor, are particularly present in ‘tier 2’ processing operations, such as shrimp peeling ‘sheds,’ that are part of extended supply chains,” the National Fisheries Institute submitted comments to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in February arguing that traceability requirements for imported shrimp were infeasible because farmed shrimp from different farms was co-mingled when delivered to shrimp peeling sheds for “pre-processing.”

The Southern Shrimp Alliance’s letter expressed support for the comments previously submitted by the Coalition for a Prosperous America in opposition to the Forced Labor Working Group’s recommendations and explained that only robust enforcement of Section 1307 would provide sufficient incentive for importers to commit the time and resources necessary to eradicate forced labor from their supply chains.

“When Americans call out with a single voice saying enough is enough, we cannot allow the importing industry and its legions of lobbyists to argue that more study is needed,” said John Williams, the Executive Director of the Southern Shrimp Alliance. “Through diligent investigation and the commitment of substantial agency resources, CBP’s TRLED has made promising progress in preventing goods produced through forced labor from reaching U.S. consumers. With greater, more aggressive enforcement from CBP, the possibility exists that at some point in the near future, shrimp purchasers will ask their suppliers who is peeling their shrimp, the conditions under which their shrimp is peeled, and why these labor-intensive steps are not undertaken within the packer’s processing plant.

Read the Forced Labor Working Group’s March 2021 Recommendations to CBP:

Read the Southern Shrimp Alliance’s March 22nd Letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Comments Regarding the March 2021 Recommendations of the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee:

Read the Coalition for a Prosperous America’s March 16th Letter to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Docket No. USCBP-2021-0006 – Comment Regarding the Recommendations by the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee:

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