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Import bans: potentially useful, but careful how you use them

Forced labour import bans can be effective, but need to be considered in a wider context of complex efforts, blogs Owain Johnstone.

Published: 15th July 2021

On 5 January this year a shipment of cotton shirts was seized at the port of Los Angeles in the US. The shipment was being imported by a major clothing company. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained the shipment on suspicion that it violated a US law prohibiting the import of goods made using forced labour. The clothing company submitted evidence arguing that its cotton was not connected with the use of forced labour, but in a ruling issued on 10 May US CBP found the evidence insufficient and upheld the ban.

This is just one, high-profile example of a forced labour import ban – a regulation that aims to prevent goods produced using forced labour from being imported into a country. These bans have been in the news recently as the US CBP has stepped up its introduction and enforcement of “WROs” (‘Withhold Release Orders’ - orders seizing shipments of imported goods), targeting goods produced by specific companies or in particular regions of the world. And it’s not only in the US: a similar ban has been introduced in Canada, a private Senator’s Bill on the topic recently received support in the Australian Parliament and there is increasing discussion of the possibility by NGOs and Parliamentarians in the UK and the EU.

But how much do we know about whether import bans work? Are they effective at reducing or preventing forced labour? The Modern Slavery and Human Rights Policy and Evidence Centre (Modern Slavery PEC) has today published a Policy Brief, based on a rapid evidence assessment to review what we know.

The overall picture is quite complex. Forced labour import bans are not new, but where they did exist, they were not used much until quite recently, so we do not have much data to draw on and there is little research that examines their effectiveness directly. There may be some lessons we can learn from similar instruments, such as global economic sanctions regimes, but more work is needed to provide policymakers with the necessary evidence on how well import bans work and how best to design them.

Based on the evidence we do have, it is clear that import bans are complex tools that can be implemented in a number of different ways. An import ban could target goods from a particular country or region, or even individual companies. Alternatively, a ban could be targeted at goods made with forced labour from an industry or an individual company. Then there needs to be a clear threshold for the evidence required to introduce a ban, and an effective mechanism for affected businesses to challenge a ban. Governments also need to be clear on which body will monitor and enforce bans, as this body will need to be suitably resourced to investigate allegations of forced labour and seize goods.

There is some evidence that import bans can have positive short-term impacts, mainly by driving change in business behaviour to prevent forced labour risk. For example, in July 2020, the US CBP issued a WRO against a Malaysian company that manufactures medical gloves, which was alleged to have used forced labour. The company agreed to improve workers’ accommodation and to refund foreign workers who had paid fees in order to obtain their jobs.

However, the long-term effectiveness of import bans is still unclear. In the case of the Malaysian glove manufacturer mentioned above, it is difficult to separate the impact of the WRO from the wider context, including media coverage, NGO advocacy and political attention. It’s also unclear - even though it undoubtedly improved the situation for some workers in the short term - how much the manufacturer’s action directly addressed the widespread exploitative practices present in the sector. In fact, recent research funded by the Modern Slavery PEC confirmed that the exploitation of migrant workers is widespread across that sector in Malaysia, and in some respects even increased during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Import bans can also be challenging to monitor and enforce. For example, an import ban that targets all goods made in a particular region requires considerable investigative resources in order to identify potentially problematic shipments. They may also carry a risk that they may be counterproductive, leading to an increase in vulnerability to exploitation of people whose livelihoods depend on particular industries.

Finally, it is important to remember that import bans are trade instruments, and as such they exist in a complex geopolitical context. They can easily become politicised, for example against countries seen as economic or political competitors. And this means that bans may have unintended consequences that are difficult to predict.

What’s clear is that the drivers of forced labour in supply chains are complex and no single action, such as an import ban, can be effective on its own. All this means that import bans may have their place in the toolbox, but they are just one tool among many and should be carefully considered alongside other efforts to tackle forced labour.

Debate on the introduction and implementation of import bans continues in several countries. The Modern Slavery PEC will continue to assess the evidence of their effectiveness and publish Policy Briefs on other regulatory and non-regulatory tools that aim to address forced labour in supply chains.

Owain Johnstone is a Partnership Manager at the Modern Slavery PEC.