Combatting Forced Labor and Enforcing Workers’ Rights Using the Tariff Act

Publication Date: 

February 25, 2020


International Labor Rights Forum

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 25 million people are living in forced labor situations. An estimated $150 billion dollars in profits a year are generated off the backs of the men, women, and children who are forced to work. The trafficking of men and boys into the seafood industry is well documented. Recent reports revealed mounting evidence of the system of forced labor in camps in Xinjiang, China.  Meanwhile, in Malawi's tobacco and Indonesia's palm oil sectors, families are trafficked across their country only to be trapped in debt bondage. Entire families are trapped in forced labor, trying to buy their way out:

“I worked for a coconut plantation in my village and made enough money to meet my basic needs. The recruiter said that if I moved to work for the palm plantation, the company would provide me with everything I needed – even housing, water and electricity. He told me that on top of this I would be paid a monthly salary […] All that Piet Jogo promised came to nothing.[…] My life was much better in my home village than here […] I want to take my family home, but we are trapped here unless I can earn enough money.”

Tomo is a thirty-two year old man trafficked with fifty others by a labor recruiter under false promises. The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and our partner Sawit Watch conducted investigations of palm oil plantations in Indonesia, where we learned of Tomo’s plight. In neighboring Malaysia, migrant workers also become trapped, and in August 2019 ILRF filed an allegation under Section 307 of the U.S. Tariff Act to stop the importation of palm oil and palm oil products manufactured by FGV Holdings Berhad, one of the country’s largest palm oil producers. Palm oil is used in about fifty percent of all packaged goods.

For ninety years, Section 307 of the U.S. Tariff Act has prohibited the import into the United States of goods made with forced labor. Lack of clear evidence standards and transparency on enforcement actions by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are seriously hindering the effectiveness of Section 307. Since 2013, ILRF has filed five petitions to CBP and joined advocacy efforts to make the law more effective.

This paper will discuss how U.S. trade policy, embodied in Section 307, can help prevent Americans’ complicity with the forced labor economy. It will primarily focus on how to prevent the importation of forced labor-made goods into the United States. The recommendations lay out key steps to improve the enforcement and implementation of the Tariff Act and motivate more effective prevention measures within the business community.