US bans imports from Chinese fishing fleet over labour practices

Officials say this is the first US ban on imports from an entire fishing fleet, as opposed to individual vessels.

US Customs and Border Protection on Friday imposed a new import ban on seafood from a Chinese fishing fleet that the agency says is using forced labour on its 32 vessels, including abuses against many Indonesian workers.

CBP said it will immediately detain tuna, swordfish and other products from the Dalian Ocean Fishing Co Ltd at United States ports of entry. The “withhold release order” banning the imports also applies to other end-use products containing seafood from the company, such as canned tuna and pet food, a CBP official said.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that the action marks the first time that CBP has banned imports from an entire fishing fleet, as opposed to individual vessels targeted in the past.

“DHS will continue to aggressively investigate the use of forced labour by distant water fishing vessels, and by a wide range of other industries,” Mayorkas told a news briefing. “Producers and US importers alike should understand that there will be consequences for entities that attempt to exploit workers to sell goods in the United States.”

CBP officials said the agency’s investigation revealed that many Indonesian workers hired by Dalian Ocean Fishing vessels found conditions far different than what they expected and were subjected to physical violence, withholding of pay, debt bondage and abusive working and living conditions.

In a statement, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said the US will promote accountability for those who use forced labour “to exploit individuals for profit” and to ensure that the “voiceless are heard and protected”.

“Today’s action helps stop human rights abusers from profiting from forced labor,” according to the statement. “It is also another example of the United States taking measures to address harmful fishing practices.”

.@CBP announced restrictions on seafood products from the PRC-based Dalian Ocean Fishing Company due to evidence of its involvement in forced labor. The international community must combat forced labor wherever it occurs, including in the fishing industry. — Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) May 28, 2021

Earlier this week, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai called attention to the issue of forced labour on fishing vessels, submitting a new proposal to the World Trade Organization to curb subsidies to illegal fishing and requiring that member countries recognise the problem.

US imports from Dalian Ocean Fishing are small, amounting to just $233,000 in the 2020 fiscal year, CBP said.

But the issue of forced labour is a growing flashpoint in strained US-China relations, after numerous recent import bans related to China’s detention of Uighur Muslims in the far-western Xinjiang region. The move comes less than two days after Tai held an initial conversation with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He.

The Trump administration, during its last week in office in January, announced a sweeping import ban on all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang over allegations that they are produced with Uighur forced labour – a far-reaching move that would require apparel and textile industries to reorder their supply chains.