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Experts Say Products Made by Chinese Prison Labor Still Enter US

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A congressionally-sponsored panel that overseas bilateral trade and economic ties between the United States and China says there is evidence that products made by prison labor in China are making their way to American stores, despite U.S. laws that ban such goods.  The U.S. - China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing on the issue Thursday, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The United States and China signed two documents, a Memorandum of Understanding in 1992 and a Statement of Cooperation in 1994, which sought to guarantee that Chinese-made products imported into the United States were not made by prison labor.

But a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Peter Videnieks, says there is evidence that such goods are making their way into this country.

"Although formal agreements have been made between the U.S. and Chinese governments to stop the export of prison labor goods to the U.S., the practice nonetheless continues," he said.

Harry Wu is an activist for human rights in China, where he spent 19 years in labor camps.  He established the Laogai Research Foundation, which is widely recognized as a leading source of information on China's labor camps.

Wu, now a U.S. citizen, provided the commission with a list of Chinese forced labor camps, many of which are labeled product factories.  

He told the panel the U.S. is not doing enough to stop products made by Chinese prison labor from reaching its shores.

"The law is clear in this matter: products produced by prison labor are prohibited from being imported into the United States, regardless of the ramifications that enforcement of the prohibition may have on relations with other countries," he added.

The U.S. agency responsible for enforcing the law prohibiting the importation of forced labor products into the United States is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Under the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding, the agency can request that the Chinese government investigate prison labor allegations relating to U.S. exports and can call upon U.S. embassy officials to visit prisons alleged to have produced goods for export to verify whether such products are being exported to the United States.

But Daniel Ellis, a lawyer who works on commercial litigation involving unfair competition and international trade issues, says U.S. investigators are finding their task nearly impossible because China has been reluctant to take action

"The guys that are trying to do the investigation are really hamstrung by the requirements on the Memorandum of Understanding to have the Chinese government or the prison to self-incriminate themselves," he explained.  "As its written and enforced, it isn't functional.  It doesn't work.  And it's clear it doesn't work."

Deputy Assistant Director of ICE's Office of International Affairs, James Ink, was more diplomatic, but did express frustration over the slow pace of China's response to his agency's requests to investigate a number of cases of alleged Chinese prison-made products exported to the U.S.

"Are they stonewalling?  I can't give you any certainly on that, sir," he said.  "I don't have enough empirical data.  I can tell you that things are not moving as fast as we would like."

Harry Wu said the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) does little to uphold U.S. law and rather only serves to provide China with diplomatic cover that it can use to defend itself in the face of criticism over the export of prison labor products.

"As a first step, I recommend that the MOU between the United States and the PRC be revoked, as it has proven to be totally ineffective in providing enforcement of United States law," he said.

Gary Marck, an American importer and distributor of drinkware products, says goods made by Chinese prison labor exported to the U.S. are sold at a much lower prices than imported products not made by forced labor, giving them an unfair and unlawful competitive edge.

"The law abiding companies must choose to exit the business, because the price in which the product is sold cannot be matched by lawful means or join in the unlawful importation of products from prison factories," he explained.

Marck supports recommendations made by the commission that would require U.S. importers to certify that goods are not made by prison labor, block imports from facilities where inspections by U.S. Customs are not allowed within 60 days of the request to inspect, and establish a list of suspected firms for use by U.S. importers so they could avoid importing products from those companies.

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