US companies offer to hide commercial data used to trace abuse | Company

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A group of big US companies want the government to hide key import data – a move trade experts say would make it harder for Americans to link the products they buy to overseas labor abuse.

The Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee is made up of executives from 20 companies, including Walmart, General Motors and Intel. The committee is authorized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection to advise on ways to streamline trade regulations.

Last week — ahead of closed-door meetings beginning Monday in Washington with senior officials from CBP and other federal agencies — leaders quietly unveiled proposals they say would modernize import and export rules for keep pace with trade volumes which have almost quintupled in the last three decades. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the proposal from a member of the committee.

Among the proposed changes: making data collected from ship manifests confidential.

The information is vitally important to researchers and journalists seeking to hold companies accountable for the mistreatment of workers in their foreign supply chains.

Here’s how it works: Journalists document a situation where workers are forced to work and cannot leave. They then use the shipping manifests to show where the products end up, and sometimes even their brand names and whether they’re on a shelf in a local supermarket or on a clothes rack in a local mall.

The proposal, if passed, would shroud in secrecy customs data on ocean freight responsible for about half of the $2.7 trillion in goods entering the United States each year. Rail, road and air freight are already protected from public disclosure under US trade law.

“It’s outrageous,” said Martina Vandenberg, a human rights attorney who has filed petitions with CBP seeking to block shipments of goods suspected of being made by forced labor.

“Each year, we continue to import and sell millions of dollars in goods tainted by forced labor,” said Vandenberg, president of the Washington-based Human Trafficking Legal Center. “American companies should be ashamed that their response to this abuse is to end transparency. It’s time they got on the right side of history.

CBP said it would not comment on ideas that were not formally submitted by its advisory board, but said the group’s proposals are developed with feedback gathered from public meetings.

But one of CBP’s stated goals in creating what it has dubbed a “21st Century Customs Framework” is to enhance the visibility of global supply chains, support ethical sourcing practices, and level the playing field for US domestic manufacturers.

Reports from the AP and other media have documented how large quantities of clothing, electronics and seafood arrive on US shelves each year due to illegal forced labor that employs 28 million people worldwide, according to the International Labor Organization. Much of this investigative work – whether it is clothing made by Uyghurs in internment camps in China’s Xinjiang region, cocoa harvested by children in the Ivory Coast, or fruits of sea ​​caught by Filipino fishermen working in slave-like conditions – begins with the shipping of manifests.

“Restricting access to this information will make it harder for the public to monitor a shipping industry that already operates largely in the shadows,” said University of British Columbia professor Peter Klein. , where he navigates the hidden costs of global supply chains. project, an international collaboration between researchers and journalists.

“In fact, CBP should be prioritizing more transparency, also opening up records of air, highway, and rail shipments.”

In its 34-page presentation, the business advisory committee said its aim in further restricting access to customs data is to protect confidential business information from “data breaches” which it says “have become more common , serious and consequential”.

The group also wants, for the first time, CBP to notify importers in advance whenever it suspects forced labor is being used. Activists say such a move puts whistleblowers abroad at risk of retaliation.

GM declined to comment, referring all inquiries to the Customs Operations Advisory Committee. Neither Intel nor Walmart responded to AP requests for comment.

In August alone, CBP targeted shipments worth more than $266 million for inspection over alleged use of forced labor, including goods subject to the recently passed Uyghur Prevention Law. forced labor. Additionally, last month the US Department of Labor added 32 products – including acai berries from Brazil, gold from Zimbabwe and tea from India – to its list of products possibly made with labor. children or forced labor, making them targets for future enforcement action.

The proposal to make vessel data confidential comes as U.S. companies are under growing pressure from consumers for greater transparency about their sourcing practices, reflected in the ambitious language found in many corporate social responsibility statements.

But Vandenberg said the proposed restrictions are in line with less-hyped litigation and big business lobbying efforts to water down enforcement of the U.S. forced labor ban.

She cited a brief filed last week by the US Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest business federation, in a case currently before a federal appeals committee in Washington. At issue is whether tech companies can be held responsible for the deaths and injuries of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo forced to mine cobalt that ends up in products sold in the United States.

The lawsuit was brought by families of dead and maimed children against tech giants Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Apple, Dell Technologies, Microsoft and Tesla under what is known as the US Trafficking Act. , which allows victims to sue companies that benefit financially from forced labor. The case was dismissed last year after a district judge found the companies did not have enough connection to the tragic working conditions in the DRC.

The Chamber of Commerce, in asking the Appeals Committee to uphold this decision, said the serious global problem of forced labor is best addressed by the initiatives of private industry, Congress and the executive branch – not by the US courts.

Such lawsuits “often last a decade or more, imposing substantial legal and reputational costs on U.S. companies doing business overseas,” the Chamber of Commerce wrote in an amicus curiae filing.

The inadequacy of rules governing commercial data disclosure for different modes of transportation dates back to 1996, when lobbying by the airline industry overturned a law passed by Congress the same year that, for the first time, required that air cargo manifests be made public.

In 2017, Scottsdale, Arizona-based ImportGenius, a platform used to research shipment data, was among companies that unsuccessfully sued the federal government seeking aircraft manifests.

“The suppression of information about goods entering our country is breathtakingly stupid,” said Michael Kanko, CEO of ImportGenius. “From uncovering imports of human hair linked to forced labor, to understanding the flow of PPE during the pandemic, to tracking importers of contaminated and deadly dog ​​treats, public access to this data has strengthened the journalism and ensuring consumer safety. We need more transparency in trade, not less.


AP Writer Martha Mendoza contributed to this report.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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