Import controls are a mechanism through which states can prevent goods entering their market if there are reasonable grounds to suspect egregious labour rights abuses in the supply chain. Along with the emergence of complementary human rights due diligence laws, they may provide states with the tools to address forced labour, child labour and other abuses.
Civil society groups have highlighted the need for import controls to focus on providing remedy for victims of egregious labour rights abuse, and to avoid unintended consequences on the welfare and livelihoods of workers. Furthermore, controls should be carefully designed to ensure compatibility with World Trade Organisation rules.
Who is using import controls?
The USA is the first state to use import controls to proactively tackle forced labour. Under the 1930 Tariff Act, customs officials have the power to issue Withhold Release Orders (WROs) which impound goods at the border, pending the importer providing proof that the goods were not produced using forced labour. The effectiveness of WROs owes to the substantial cost implications for abusive companies, which compel those companies to rapidly remedy the situation. For example, Kossan Rubber Industries, Topglove and Supermax, three Malaysian manufacturers of medical PPE, repaid migrant workers’ recruitment fees to a combined value of nearly US$30m following the imposition of WROs.
This approach has been expanded under the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act, which specifically covers imports from the Xinjiang region of China.
There is also momentum internationally. In May 2021 Canada legislated to ban imports linked to forced labour, and Mexico is likely to follow suit; both countries are required to pass such a law as a provision of the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.