Aug 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States has hailed a milestone in its drive to ban the imports of products made by forced labor, after fining a company it judged to have used Chinese prisoners to make food sweetener.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said on Thursday it had collected $575,000 from Pure Circle U.S.A. following a civil action, the first such penalty issued since the passage of the 2015 Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act.
The law bans the import of goods made entirely or in part by forced labor, ranging from prison work to bonded child labor.
The agency seized a shipment of stevia - a plant extract used as a sweetener in sodas - in May 2016 after receiving information that it was made by prison labor. The CBP did not specify where in China the product was produced.
The agency said subsequent investigations led it to obtain evidence that at least 20 shipments of stevia powder and derivatives had been processed in China with prison labor.
"As part of its trade enforcement responsibilities, CBP will hold companies accountable for importing goods produced with forced labor," Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner of CBP's Office of Trade, said in a statement.
Pure Circle was not immediately available to comment, but the company in 2016 disputed the CBP's findings and then said it had a policy prohibiting the use of prison or forced labor.
The Chinese embassy in Washington was not immediately available to comment.
The CBP has during the last year ramped up action over imports suspected to have been made with forced labor, having issued 11 detention orders since September 2019.
The agency in June blocked an $800,000 shipment of hair extensions and accessories from a firm based in Xinjiang, China.
The company, Lop County Meixin Hair Product Co, could not be reached for comment but a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the United States then said "the accusation of forced labor in Xinjiang is both false and malicious".
And the CBP last month detained imports from Malaysia from two subsidiaries of medical glove maker Top Glove Corporation. The firm has petitioned against the import ban, and vowed to repay recruitment fees to workers and improve their housing.
A company hit with a detention order can decide to reroute the shipment and try to sell their products elsewhere or persuade the CBP to change its decision by providing documents to demonstrate due diligence and argue the goods are slave-free.
More than $400 billion worth of goods likely to be made by forced labor enter the U.S. market each year, according to estimates by the Human Trafficking Institute, a non-profit.
(Writing by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)