Guest Editorials, Opinion

Holding corps and abusive countries accountable for slave-labor use

Various prominent U.S. corporations, including Walmart and Intel, might be shying away from principled stances condemning foreign uses of slavery and child labor for the production of cheap consumer goods. An importation rule change proposes to eliminate declarations on imported goods that offer insights into where goods come from and whether abusive labor practices were at play. The net effect would be to help countries of origin hide their abuses from their American customers.

The existing U.S. Customs and Border Protection rules require statements of origin on shipping manifests, which offer significant clues about the labor conditions behind certain products. Consumers, of course, want access to cheap goods. But is it really worth saving a few cents to purchase goods in which slavery, forced abortion, torture or child exploitation were part of the production process?

Consider the situation of Uyghurs in China. They are a primarily Muslim ethnic minority targeted by the Chinese government. More than 1 million have been detained and sent to reeducation camps since 2017.  In the Xinjiang region of northwestern China, forced labor yields products that China then tries to export, including cotton fabric and components of microchips.

As the Post-Dispatch’s Dan Neman reported last week, Intel declared in December that no components of its products came from Xinjiang, prompting such harsh pushback from the Chinese government that Intel backed down and apologized. Apologized, that is, for taking a stand against slave labor.

The Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee — executives from 20 top corporations and organizations that include Walmart, Intel and General Motors — has floated a rule change to streamline importation procedures. Shipping manifests would be treated as confidential, which means the public would have a much harder time tracing the origins of the products they’re buying.

There are 41 countries whose labor practices warrant scrutiny due to slavery or abusive labor conditions, including child labor. The situation involving Uyghurs is the poster child for global condemnation and consumer boycotts, but it’s far from the only example. In August alone, Fortune magazine reported, Customs and Border Patrol targeted shipments valued at more than $266 million for inspection due to suspected use of forced labor, including goods from Xinjiang as well as from Brazil, Zimbabwe and India where suspected child or forced labor were used in production.

The advisory committee’s rule-change proposal deserves a swift and unceremonious rejection. As long as American consumers blindly purchase products without knowing their origins, countries like China will feel minimal pressure to halt their egregiously abusive labor practices.

This editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.