U.S. Customs and Border Protection has imposed a new import ban on seafood from a fleet of Chinese fishing vessels, after a year-long investigation uncovered what U.S. officials called signs of forced labor within the fleet's operations.
In a statement on Friday, CBP said it had issued what's known as a withhold release order against Dalian Ocean Fishing Co., Ltd., a fishing company based in Dalian, a port city near China's border with North Korea. The agency said it identified at least 11 indicators of forced labor across the company's fleet, "including physical violence, withholding of wages, and abusive working and living conditions." The allegations include abuses against many Indonesian workers.
With the ban in effect, border agents will start detaining tuna, swordfish and other seafood harvested by vessels owned or operated by the Chinese company. According to CBP officials, this is the first U.S. ban on imports from an entire fishing fleet, as opposed to individual vessels targeted in the past.
"Companies that exploit their workers have no place doing business in the United States," said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in a statement. "Products made from forced labor not only exploit workers, but hurt American businesses and expose consumers to unethical purchases."
Mayorkas said the withhold release order will not only ensure the continued protection of human rights, but also safeguard national and economic security.
Dalian Ocean Fishing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier this week, U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai also called attention to the issue of forced labor on fishing vessels, submitting a proposal to the World Trade Organization to curb subsidies to fishing activities that involve the use of forced labor and requiring that member countries recognize the problem.
According to a 2017 report by the International Labour Organization and the Walk Free Foundation, an estimated 25 million people worldwide are being forced to work under threat or coercion. Around 16 million of these individuals were in forced labor in the private economy in 2016, according to the report.
The withhold release order on Dalian Ocean Fishing is the latest in a string of similar bans. Chinese companies have been the target of several major import bans over forced labor concerns in the past couple of years.
The Trump administration, during its last week in office, implemented a ban on the import of cotton and tomato products from China's Xinjiang region. The sweeping prohibition followed allegations that products were being produced by Uighur Muslims working under involuntary conditions and forced labor.
In September, in a similar effort, the U.S. prohibited the import of certain Chinese-made hair products, apparel and computer parts over concerns of forced labor — again in the Xinjiang region.
Previous targets have also included producers of toys, peeled garlic and artificial sweeteners.
"DHS will continue to aggressively investigate the use of forced labor by distant water fishing vessels, and by a wide range of other industries," said Secretary Mayorkas in a news briefing. "Producers and U.S. importers alike should understand that there will be consequences for entities that attempt to exploit workers to sell goods in the United States."