In Effort to Combat Forced-Labor Camps Abroad, U.S. Blocks Prison-Made Imports from China

You buy a cute and trendy $10 shirt. “What a steal!” you think, right? But then you look at a label, and what does it most likely say? That’s right; “Made in China”. While in some cases I’ll find a shirt that says “made in India” or “Thailand”, or even the more rare “made in the U.S.” or “Italy”, the majority of products we use come from the enormous so-called communist nation.

In our world of consumerism and capitalism, we are happy that we can buy a T-shirt for ten bucks. But at what cost? How do we know the conditions in which our beloved items were made?

The United States has upped it’s game in trying to figure this out – specifically in regards to items which are products of forced labor camps. The pressure on China began when back in March, the U.S. closed a decades-old loophole in trade law. The 1930 law allowed goods “made with convict labor, forced labor or indentured labor” to be imported if they were in short supply.

In an effort to combat forced labor in prisons overseas, U.S. customs authorities now block imports suspected of being made this way. Recently, authorities blocked products specifically linked to three Chinese companies, which produce chemicals, textile fibers, and sweeteners.

Prison labor “has long been an ugly and opaque corner of China’s giant manufacturing and trade sector,” CNN reports. However, the U.S.’s push to fight this issue has been difficult, due to the immense lack of transparency and cooperation from the Chinese government.

Experts say that closing the loophole in trading practice places pressure on companies to pay more attention to the source of the products they are buying.

Nadira Lamrad, a researcher at the City University of Hong Kong, told CNN, “It’s a major driver for change. The U.S. is a huge market, so it can force corporations and manufacturers to think about the risks that exist within their supply chain.”

When reporters from CNN reached out to two of the Chinese companies whose products were blocked (and subsequently detained) – Tangshan SunFar Silicon Company and Tangshan Sanyou Group – they were met with no response. Multiple calls to numbers listed on the companies’ websites went unanswered, and some went as far as to disconnect their lines altogether. Clearly these corporations would rather pretend they don’t exist than speak any truth on the matter. Their tactic was cowardly – to become ghosts.

The third company linked to convict labor, Inner Mongolia Hengzheng Group Baoanzhao Agricultural and Trade, however, did have the guts to talk.  A manager who answered the phone said it was “absolutely impossible” that his company would have used forced prison labor, choosing this time the spineless strategy of denial. He declined to be identified by name.

Another corporation has rejected the claim that its goods were made by Hengzheng Group. Malaysia-based PureCircle, the company in question, imports the sweetener which was detained by U.S. customs. They pointedly noted that they have “an explicit policy prohibiting use of forced labor.” They say they are currently working with the U.S. to get the imported sweetener released.

The Chinese prison system has long been criticized internationally for its questionable ethics and human rights abuses. The former “re-education through labor” camps, which the Chinese government closed in 2014, have been condemned by human rights organizations for being used as a means to silence anyone deemed a threat, including political dissidents and activists.  

The “official” closing of the camps have done little to convince human rights advocates nor U.S. government agents that these horrid practices no longer take place in China. They say they believe “people are still forced to work under brutal conditions while locked-up in government-administered detention facilities.”

One such advocate, Hong Kong-based independent human rights researcher Joshua Rozenzweig, says, “[It’s] the use of state power to compel people to work … [and] deprive them of their liberty.”

The U.S. government continues to investigate the issue.

“I haven’t seen definitive proof one way or another that would convince me that this type of activity is not going on,” Kenneth Kennedy, a senior policy adviser with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), told CNN.

It is an agnostic approach, for sure. There is no evidence one way or the other, but just because there isn’t proof it is happening, does not mean it isn’t.

In fact, finding witnesses to corroborate these allegations against China is difficult. Inmates could still be locked up, and those who have been released often want to “lay low”, said Kennedy.

But “the reports are still coming in, and they’re credible. Just because the [Chinese] government says ‘We’re not doing this’ is not enough to not have us move forward,” he added.

Nearly a quarter-century ago, China signed a memorandum of understanding with the Unites States to prohibit the import of Chinese prison-made goods. The 1992 agreement also specified that any suspected violations to this would be “promptly investigated”.

Two years later, the agreement was expanded to include the requirement that both sides allow the other to visit suspected forced-labor camp sites within 60 days of a request being made. The agreement was atypical for the U.S., as this country does not have arrangements of this nature with any other nation. The memorandum, however, does not have any penalties attached for non-compliance by either party.

According to Kennedy, China has never made any such requests of the U.S. However the Chinese government took almost a decade to respond to U.S. requests for information.

China seems to have the mentality (or rather the deliberate ploy) of “mum’s the word”. It classifies most of its information about the prison system as “state secrets”, therefore the precise number of camps, prisoners, and other aspects of the system remain unknown.

The International Centre for Prison Studies in London puts the figure at about 700 prisons with at least 2.3 million people incarcerated. Washington-based nonprofit group the Laogai Research Foundation estimates there are as many as 1,400 forced-labor facilities of all types, holding 3 million people.

While these estimates vary, they all indicate that the prison-system in China is astronomical.

Neither China’s Ministry of Justice nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to questions faxed by CNN.

The complex global-nature of the modern-age trading system makes it all the more difficult for U.S. authorities to identify whether an item was made by forced labor, Kennedy expressed.

He offers the simple example of sneakers: each part of the shoe – the laces, soles, leather, and so on – could be made in different countries and in multiple factories.

And it isn’t just China that practices forced-labor. Many other countries use convict labor to make goods as well. The programs operate under the facade that they are preparing inmates for employment after their release from jail. How thoughtful of them. Our country is not so innocent either. Included in this inventory of nations is the good old U.S. of A, where prisoners work through government contractors to produce goods used for the government as well as the private sector.

Jeremy Prepscius, vice president for Asia Pacific at the non-profit Business for Social Responsibility, spoke about this practice: “There’s also a lot of unauthorized subcontracting — you give the order to a factory, but they give it to somebody else to complete,” he told CNN reporters.

Many activists are skeptical of the programs’ claims that they help inmates prepare for the outside world’s job-scene. These critics say conditions can be exploitative and detainees poorly paid. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the government-run contractor for the federal system, Unicor, typically pays inmates a shameful and measly wage of between 23 cents to $1.15 an hour.

One key difference between the two nations is that unlike China, the U.S. doesn’t deny using prison-labor. Detainees in the U.S. are given the right to a fair trial in a much more transparent judicial system. The same is certainly not true of China, where confessions are often coerced and the legal system murky.

China officially bans the export of products made through forced prison labor.  But with the hazy nature and often distorted truth that the country offers the world, it is hard to know if that law is being enforced.

“You can audit a factory,” Rozenzweig said. “It’s a lot more difficult to audit a prison in China.”