Did you know that the U.S. has allowed products made from forced labor to enter the country under a 1930s legal loophole? It's a startling revelation that appears to have gone unnoticed for several decades, only recently gaining national attention thanks to a 2015 in-depth expose by the Associated Press. The news organization, investigating slavery in the global seafood industry, discovered that top American chains have been unwittingly buying and selling products generated by forced labor.
While shocking, selling goods with roots in international slavery isn't illegal. The U.S. Tariff Act of 1930 features a loophole that allows the importation of goods made by "children, prisoners or slaves" if domestic consumer demand cannot be met without them. Created during the Great Depression, it's a backdoor exception that has endured for nearly 85 years.
"It's an outrage this loophole persisted for so long," Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden told Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press. "No product made by people held against their will, or by children, should ever be imported to the United States."
Congress agreed, recently passing a co-sponsored amendment from Wyden and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown to close the loophole. When President Obama signs the bill later this week, it will effectively expose hundreds of imported products created using forced and child labor to federal law enforcement.
“I think most Americans were horrified to learn that the fish in the pet food they give to their cats and dogs was being caught by children forced to work on ships against their will,” Brown told the New York Times.
The move comes as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced plans to more closely track the sourcing of seafood into the U.S. According to the New York Times, roughly 90 percent of seafood for human and pet consumption is imported. Monitoring where these products come from is meant to not only shore up protections for endangered species, but also to shed light on working conditions.
“This proposed rule is a critical first step in our efforts to create a comprehensive traceability program designed to prevent products from illegal and fraudulent fishing entering U.S. commerce,” Catherine Novelli, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, said in a statement. "Starting with our discrete list of at-risk seafood species, we will create an effective program to protect against practices that undermine the sustainability of our shared ocean resources."