Customs officials from the United States this year have sharply ramped up searches and detainments of goods suspected of being made with forced labor — including hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products that Americans consume and use every day, from clothes to palm oil, tomatoes, rubber gloves and even hair extensions.
Already, it is clear that Chinese cotton has become the main target of the new enforcement push from Customs and Border Protection inspectors. Of the nearly 1,000 import shipments intercepted so far this fiscal year, 75 percent were suspected of containing cotton from Xinjiang, which produces 20 percent of the world's supply.
The U.S. has had the legal authority to detain goods it suspects were produced through forced labor since 1930, but for 85 years it was almost impossible for officials to apply that power because of a trade law loophole. Officials issued orders barring goods only twice in the 1950s and 30 times in the '90s — many against Chinese imports made with prison labor.
The government had not issued a forced labor order in 15 years when the loophole, which exempted any goods for which domestic production did not meet demand, was closed in 2016. The U.S. began cracking down slowly, with just four orders that year and two more in 2018. This year, enforcement actions have skyrocketed.