In a rare moment of bipartisan unity, Congress and the president have finally reached a consensus: They agree that slavery is a bad thing.
Lawmakers just approved a measure aimed at getting slave labor out of free trade. The legislation—passed not a day too soon, even by Washington standards—closes a loophole in trade laws that had for decades quietly permitted the exploitation of forced labor in supply chains of imports. The 1930 Tariff Act, which generally barred imports that regulators determined were made with enslaved, coerced, or child labor, allowed a glaring exemption for products that were needed to meet US consumer demands. Reflecting America’s peculiar market exceptionalism, the policy explicitly prioritized the “rights” Americans to unbridled consumption, over the human rights of people in bondage abroad, as long as they were producing something we really, really wanted.
Over time, this exemption has effectively been broadened to facilitate the import of goods ranging from seafood to sneakers, one of many obstacles to government oversight over exporters profiting directly or indirectly from coerced labor.
The reform follows critical reports exposing systemic labor violations, including enslavement, in major export industries—particularly complaints about migrant-labor trafficking on Southeast Asian fishing vessels raised by officials, labor organizations, and international media. Tucked into a trade bill the president is expected to sign soon, the provision empowers Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to block incoming shipments of goods tied to forced labor. The task of investigating firms linked to forced labor would be handled by the Department of Homeland Security. According to the Associated Press, Homeland Security agents in 46 countries would be charged with monitoring supply chains.
Erasing the loophole has been hailed as a political milestone by advocates. Businesses have often bristled at such humanitarian-focused trade restrictions, preferring instead private, voluntary (and often toothless) efforts. Still, there is no guarantee of adequate enforcement resources for halting contraband products at the ports. Nor is it clear how investigators can effectively detect concrete evidence of coerced labor in product inspections, which will be primarily driven by individual complaints.