Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Representing Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, Maryknoll Sisters, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Trade: Customs bill and human trafficking

The following article, published in the March-April 2016 issue of NewsNotes, details how the customs and trade enforcement bill recently signed by President Obama stymies progress to combat human trafficking, climate change, and occupied territories.

At the end of February, President Obama signed the customs and trade enforcement bill that had languished in Congress since this summer’s politically charged vote over a package of trade legislation known as “Fast Track.” 

A positive amendment included in the customs bill closes an 80-year loophole that allowed goods made with trafficked and slave labor to be imported into the United States. The Tariff Act of 1930 prohibits the importation of goods made with forced, child, or prison labor.  However, a loophole in the 1930 law allowed companies to import slave-made goods if producers in the United States couldn’t meet consumer demand. This has allowed slave-labor cocoa, cotton, and shrimp to be sold in stores across the United States.

Despite the long-overdue victory, the customs bill includes an amendment that weakens other strong anti-trafficking language in the Fast Track legislation. The “No Fast Track for Human Traffickers” amendment would have prohibited Fast Track trade privileges for any “Tier 3” country in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report. Tier 3 status indicates that a country has serious human trafficking problems and is not making significant efforts to fight the scourge of modern-day slavery. The new language in the customs bill allows the president to write a letter and request a waiver for a Tier 3 country to participate in a fast-tracked trade deal. 

This is particularly relevant to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. When the “No Fast Track for Human Traffickers” amendment unanimously passed the Senate Finance Committee last Spring, senators did not realize that Malaysia, one of 12 countries in the TPP, was on the State Department’s Tier 3 watch list. When legislators were unable to remove the amendment from the Senate’s bill to authorize the TPP, they included a watered down version of the anti-human trafficking amendment in the House customs bill. 

Also, when the State Department released its Trafficking in Persons report for 2015, they upgraded Malaysia to a Tier 2 status, removing any controversy over its participation in the TPP. Human rights and faith advocates widely criticized the report as being politically motivated to ensure Malaysia’s participation in the trade agreement.  The TPP is also criticized for being a docking agreement, meaning that other countries can join including Thailand, which is also ranked as Tier 3.

Unfortunately, the customs bill contains other poison pills that the Republican-controlled House wanted in the Fast Track trade bill passed last summer. While the White House says the customs bill was meant to strength trade enforcement rules, it actually allowed legislators to further weaken environmental and social policies in Fast Track. The Interfaith Working Group on Trade and Investment sent a letter to members of Congress asking them to oppose the rollbacks to environmental, immigration, and human rights policies.

Another poison pill prevents Fast Track trade authority with countries that have policies permitting boycott, divestment, or sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This past summer, faith groups, including the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, sent a letter to the White House to raise concerns about the BDS amendment because it implies support of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. Inclusion of the anti-BDS amendment condones Israel’s violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition against a nation transferring its civilians into occupied territory.  Language that refers to the occupied Palestinian territories as “Israeli-controlled territories” changes nearly 50 years of U.S. foreign policy without discussion, and ultimately threatens the peace and security of the Israeli as well as the Palestinian people. 

Faith in action: The Washington Interfaith Staff Community Working Group on Human Trafficking offers a Interfaith Trafficking Toolkit for several faith traditions, including prayers, scriptures, statements, fact sheets, and ideas for local faith communities to take action. Download the Interfaith Trafficking Toolkit at

The Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking has embarked on a national Lenten postcard campaign against human trafficking in our seafood supply chains. Send postcards to Costco and StarKist urging vigilance to ensure that the seafood we eat is not tainted by slave labor.