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Company making Costco pajamas flagged for forced labor

The Trump Administration is blocking shipments from a Chinese company making baby pajamas sold at Costco warehouses, after the foreign manufacturer was accused of forcing ethnic minorities locked in an internment camp to sew clothes against their will.

The government is also blocking rubber gloves sold by industry leader Ansell whose customers include surgeons, mechanics and scientists around the U.S., accusing a Malaysian manufacturer of staffing its factories with migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal and other countries who went into crushing debt from paying exorbitant recruitment fees. Imports of bone charcoal from Brazil that firms like Plymouth Technology and ResinTech Inc. used to remove contaminants in U.S. water systems, diamonds from Zimbabwe and gold from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo were stopped as well.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Oct. 1 slapped rare detention orders on goods imported from an unprecedented five countries in one day based on allegations that people producing those items might be children, or adults subjected to forced labor. The orders are used to hold shipping containers at the U.S. ports of entry until the agency can investigate the claims of wrongdoing.

CBP did not release information about the companies that were importing the goods covered by last week’s detention orders. But The Associated Press tracked items to several buyers, including Costco and the U.S. subsidiary of Ansell, an Australian protective gloves manufacturer.

The companies said they were not aware that their products were being made with forced labor.

Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan said the orders, the most issued in a single day, “shows that if we suspect a product is made using forced labor, we’ll take that product off U.S. shelves.”

Custom’s action last week is sending ripples globally, with exporters now on notice to improve labor conditions. Domestically, some U.S. importers were shaken to learn their products might have been made by people forced to work against their will or under threat of punishment. Human rights experts warn as many as 25 million people globally are victims of forced labor. In recent years, investigations by media organizations and advocacy groups have tracked products suspected of being made by forced labor as they travel from manufacturers, through brokers and dealers, into the hands of American consumers.

“CBP’s announcement is significant because of the unprecedented number of actions and for the message that it sends across corporate supply chains,” said labor advocates at Humanity United and Freedom Fund in a joint statement. “We know that myriad imported goods U.S. consumers enjoy every day — from clothing to electronics to chocolate, fruits and vegetables, and other food s– are likely tainted by forced labor in their supply chains. Making real progress to change this will require a concerted effort across and outside of government, including through strong enforcement of existing laws like this.”

Until recently, the detentions orders used to block the shipments last week would have been almost impossible.

Before 2016, the Tariff Act — which gave Customs and Border Protection the authority to seize shipments where forced labor was suspected and block further imports — had been used only 39 times over its first 85 years, largely because of two words: “consumptive demand” –meaning if there was not sufficient supply to meet domestic demand, imports were allowed regardless of how they were produced.

After an AP investigation found that seafood caught by slaves in Southeast Asia was ending up in restaurants and markets around the U.S. with impunity because of the loophole, Congress and President Barrack Obama changed the law. Since then, under both the Obama and Trump administrations, CBP has used its detention authority 12 times to stop shipments, including those last week.

Under the law, U.S. importers have 90 days to prove no forced labor was used to produce their products. If they can’t, they can either ship their products to another country or surrender them to Customs.

Costco Pajamas

One major case from last week involves China’s Hetian Taida Apparel, which AP reported last year was forcing Uigher Muslims and other ethnic minorities to sew clothes for U.S. importers inside a Chinese re-education camp.