LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – OCTOBER 01: Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong communities gather to march from the Piccadilly Circus and arrive in Chinese Embassy in London to protest against 70 years of China’s oppression within the 72nd anniversary of the est (Photo by Hasan Esen/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images / Getty Images)
"Curtailing access to this information will make it harder for the public to monitor a shipping industry that already functions largely in the shadows," said Peter Klein, a professor at University of British Columbia, where he runs the Hidden Costs of Global Supply Chains project, an international collaborative between researchers and journalists.
"If anything, CBP should be prioritizing more transparency, opening up records of shipments by air, road and rail as well."
In its 34-page presentation, the business advisory panel said its goal in further restricting access to customs data is to protect confidential business information from "data breaches" that it says "have become more commonplace, severe and consequential."
The group also wants CBP for the first time to provide importers with advance notice whenever it suspects forced labor is being used. Activists say such a move puts whistleblowers overseas 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 valued at more than $266 million for inspection due to suspected use of forced labor, including goods subject to the recently passed Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act. Additionally, last month the U.S. Department of Labor added 32 products — among them acai berries from Brazil, gold from Zimbabwe and tea from India — to its list of goods possibly made with child or forced labor, making them targets for future enforcement actions.
The proposal to make vessel data confidential comes as American companies are under increasing pressure from consumers to provide greater transparency regarding their sourcing practices, something reflected in the ambitious language found in many corporate social responsibility statements.
But Vandenberg said the proposed restrictions are in line with less-touted litigation and lobby efforts by major companies to water down enforcement of the U.S. ban on forced labor.
She cited a brief filed last week by the American Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest business federation, in a case now before a federal appeals panel in Washington. At issue is whether tech companies can be held responsible for the death and injury of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo forced to mine cobalt that ends up in products sold in the U.S.
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’s known as the U.S. Trafficking Act, which allows victims to sue ventures that benefit financially from forced labor. The case was dismissed last year after a district judge found the companies lacked sufficient ties to the tragic working conditions in the DRC.
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The Chamber of Commerce, in asking the appeals panel to uphold that decision, said the serious global problem of forced labor is best addressed by private industry initiatives, Congress and the executive branch — not U.S. courts.
Such suits "often last a decade or more, imposing substantial legal and reputational costs on U.S. companies that transact business overseas," the Chamber of Commerce wrote in a friend-of-the-court filing.
The mismatch in rules governing disclosure of trade data for different forms of transportation goes back to 1996, when lobbying by the airline industry reversed a law passed by Congress that same year that for the first time required air freight manifests be made public.
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In 2017, Scottsdale, Arizona-based ImportGenius — a platform used to search shipping data — was among companies that unsuccessfully sued the federal government seeking to obtain aircraft manifests.
"Suppressing information about goods coming into our country is breathtakingly stupid," said Michael Kanko, CEO of ImportGenius. "From discovering imports of human hair linked to forced labor, to understanding the flow of PPE during the pandemic, to tracking importers of tainted, deadly dog treats, public access to this data has empowered journalism and kept consumers safe. We need more transparency in trade, not less."
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