This May Day, Customs and Border Patrol Should Investigate Wal-Mart's Use of Prison Labor

Happy May Day from Corporate Accountability Lab!

Happy May Day from Corporate Accountability Lab!

Convict labor-produced goods have been making it into American (2) and European markets for years, and these notes are one of the few ways it has been uncovered. Considering that the U.S. has an unambiguous law prohibiting the importation of goods produced with forced, convict, and child labor, why is this still happening?

Under 19 U.S.C. § 1307, all imports “manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor or/and forced labor or/and indentured labor under penal sanctions shall not be entitled to entry at any of the ports of the United States, and the importation thereof is hereby prohibited…” A loophole in this law, allowing companies to import goods produced with forced labor if the demand in the U.S. could not be met by domestic production, was closed last year. This suggests that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should be initiating an investigation into Wal-Mart’s purses from China today because this is evidence of goods made in Chinese prisons being imported into the U.S., in clear violation of U.S. law.

One problem might be that a note found in a purse, while pretty persuasive, may be considered weak evidence because it is so hard to corroborate. Though, incredibly, the authors of these notes have often been tracked down and the veracity confirmed.

What other evidence could be gathered? While most major corporations prohibit the use of forced and prison labor in their supply chains, and make sweeping claims about their supply chain due diligence, that system is clearly ineffective because this continues to happen with some regularity. If corporate due diligence is failing to uncover this notoriously slippery offense, how else, aside from notes in purses, is the importation of goods made with foreign prison labor going to be uncovered?

To me, the answer is that the note is sufficient evidence for CBP to investigate. It may not be enough to stop the potentially offending goods at the border, but if such a note miraculously making it all the way to a consumer is not enough for some further action, 19 U.S.C. § 1307 is essentially meaningless.

It’s also significant that the present administration claims to be very excited about enforcement of U.S. trade law, and ensuring that our workers are not harmed by unfair trade practices.

So CPB, time to make good on your promises. Investigate Wal-Mart for using forced labor in its supply chains, and if further evidence is uncovered, stop their products at the border. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart would simply need to cut a contract or two to get out of this mess, rather than paying any reparations to the prisoners who made their products, but some deterrent is better than no deterrent.

I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on how we force CBP to enforce 19 U.S.C. § 1307, or whether we should be filing unfair trade practices cases in state or federal courts, or at the International Trade Commission, based on facts like these. Would these actions get around the evidentiary issue?

Charity Ryerson is a co-founder and legal designer for Corporate Accountability Lab.