244 – The Role of Customs and Border Protection in Disrupting Supply Chain Forced Labor and Why it Matters to All of Us!

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner Cynthia Whittenburg examine the role U.S. Customs and Border Protection plays in combating Labor Trafficking. They discuss the authority the CBP has and what that looks like when it’s put into action. The impact of their actions are analyzed from a global perspective. Steps that can be taken to educate about the issues of labor trafficking and inform businesses about best practices are outlined.

Cynthia Whittenburg

Cynthia Whittenburg was appointed Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Trade, in 2016, charged with overseeing one of the most important aspects of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) complex mission:  facilitating lawful trade while protecting our supply chain to support our nation’s economic growth and security.  Under her leadership, CBP addresses many of the complex challenges in today’s trade environment including e-commerce, forced labor, unfair trade practices, and regulatory reform.
Ms. Whittenburg’s civil service career began with the U.S. Customs Service at the Port of New Orleans as an import specialist 32 years ago while serving in a parallel career as a commissioned U.S. Army Reservist.
Ms. Whittenburg is a graduate of Dillard University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science/Business and has earned a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Georgia Southern University.  Additionally, she graduated from the Department of Homeland Security Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program in 2013 and the Senior Managers in Government course at Harvard Kennedy School of Government in 2016.

Key Points

  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a large role in the fight to end human trafficking that most people are unaware of. CBP has the authority to stop goods from coming into the U.S. that have been produced with forced labor.
  • The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act was passed in 2016 which gave CBP more authority to detain shipments coming into the U.S. that are made wholly or in part with forced labor.
  • When businesses use forced labor they are upsetting the economic competitiveness of American business, and negatively impacts other businesses’ abilities to compete in a fair and competitive manner.
  • There are many resources available to the public to see which companies and products have been in contact with forced labor. These websites and reports also give readers the ability to see what regions in the world are high in labor trafficking; in order to, avoid buying products from those areas that have the potential to be tainted with human trafficking.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast, this is episode number 244: The Role of Customs and Border Protection in Disrupting Supply Chain Forced Labor, and Why it Matters to All of Us.


Production Credits [00:00:13] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.


Dave [00:00:34] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.


Sandie [00:00:40] And my name is Sandie Morgan.


Dave [00:00:43] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking, Sandie. I’m so glad for our conversation today. We are so pleased to have a leader that’s part of an organization that’s such an important partner in the work we are doing to end human trafficking. We’re so glad to welcome today Cynthia F. Whittenburg to the show. Cynthia was appointed Deputy Executive Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Trade in 2016, charged with overseeing one of the most important aspects of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) complex mission: facilitating lawful trade while protecting our supply chain to support our nation’s economic growth and security. Under her leadership, CBP addresses many of the complex challenges in today’s trade environment, including e-commerce, forced labor, unfair trade practices, and regulatory reform. Miss Wittenburg’s civil service began with the U.S. Customs Service at the Port of New Orleans and is an import specialist 32 years ago, while serving in a parallel career as a commission US Army reservist. She’s a graduate of Dillard University and also has a master’s degree in public administration from Georgia Southern University. Miss Wittenburg, so glad to welcome you to the show.


Cynthia [00:02:03] Thank you, Dave. It’s a pleasure to be here. And I look forward to our conversation today.


Sandie [00:02:08] Well, our conversation is so timely because this is January 2021. It’s National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. And I’ve read something from some folks in your office about the vital role that the Customs and Border Protection folks play in ending modern-day slavery. And most people are not even aware of your role. Can you give us a little bit of an idea of the intersection between CBP and human trafficking right here in the U.S.?


Cynthia [00:02:49] Dr. Morgan, again, thank you for an opportunity to discuss this very, very important matter to all of your listeners. This is, as you mentioned, January, a time for the people of the United States to recognize the vital role that we can play in ending modern-day slavery. CBP works very hard to raise awareness about the dangers of forced labor that may be woven into the supply chain of goods that are destined for the United States and also to prevent unethically made goods from hurting Americans in our economy.


Sandie [00:03:25] So as I began to understand the Customs and Border Protection, I always thought it was more about you would identify victims of trafficking that someone was trying to bring into the US. And when I saw the first detention order announced, everything changed for me. Can you explain to our listeners what the power of a detention order does in fighting human trafficking, especially in the context of supply chains?


Cynthia [00:04:01] Well, absolutely. The US Customs and Border Protection is, in fact the global leader in leveraging our Customs and Border Protection authorities to combat forced labor. So, I’ll take you back in history a little bit. The Tariff Act of 1930 granted Customs and Border Protection a unique authority to prevent goods made with forced labor from entering the US commerce. And since then, we’ve had the passage of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 that strengthened the Customs and Border Protection Authority to address forced labor in the supply chain. One at one of the issues that we were faced with prior to the passage of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act was that the original legislation had a clause called a consumptive demand clause, and that clause made it difficult for Customs and Border Protection to enforce the presence of components that are woven into goods coming or are attempting to be entered into the United States. Because if we had information that would lead us to believe that goods contained or were tainted with forced labor, the importer could raise an issue that that particular good was not available in commercial quantities that were demanded and thereby making that particular shipment exempt from the forced labor authority. So, since the passage of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, it eliminated that consumptive demand clause, and that that enabled us to take a stronger stance when faced with goods that reasonably indicate that there’s forced labor in the development or the production of that good. So, the result of that is we are able to issue what’s called a withhold release order WRO and these withhold release orders, instruct our CBP personnel at the ports of entry to detain shipments containing goods that are made whole or in part from forced labor. So, after CBP detains a shipment, the importers then have up to three months to either submit proof that’s proving the negative, so to speak, that the goods were not produced with forced labor or proving that goods were produced legitimately without the use of forced labor. Or the importer may be able to export the shipment. If the import fails to take sufficient action, then CBP will seize the shipment.


Sandie [00:06:51] And what happens when you seize it? What does that mean?


Cynthia [00:06:54] That we take physical control of those goods and then we still are working to determine the final disposition of those goods?


Sandie [00:07:04] OK, so for years my students there that we have a club called Live2Free and they have talked about supply chain transparency. They do fair trade fashion shows, they create fair trade shopping lists. They only buy chocolate that can prove that children or adults weren’t slaves in that. And so, but that’s always felt like a David and Goliath fight. I’m dollar by dollar making a choice not to purchase products where the supply chain is tainted by slavery. And now you’re telling me you’re going to be the Goliath; you’re going to stop it right at the border. That’s going to be a game-changer, right?


Cynthia [00:07:50] Absolutely. And so, again, using the limited authorities that we have and it’s significant in the importing world, as you know, Dr. Morgan, this is a global problem. This is an atrocity against what we know. The data tells us that twenty-five million worldwide suffer under forced labor and that companies who engage in forced labor are not only subject their workers to withholding of wages or restriction of movement, but they also subjected their workers to physical and sexual violence and other abuses. And so, what we can do is by issuing the WROs and in fact, we issued 13 this past year and detained more than 300 shipments containing goods made with forced labor.


Sandie [00:08:43] Wow. Congratulations. What kind of products?


Cynthia [00:08:48] Most recently hair products. Cotton, computer parts, and other goods made from China’s Xinjiang Wigger Autonomous Region, and we’ve leveraged these WROs to detain a shipment of 13 tons of hair products here. And in July, yes, a new shipment also of leather gloves and tobacco and laptops. So, the list is going on and on.


Sandie [00:09:16] So then this brings me back to a conversation I had some time ago about good stewardship; we want to be responsible consumers. We want to stick to our budget. But sometimes when something seems cheap, it’s actually very expensive because it’s made by exploiting another human being. Can you talk for a moment about the layer of human rights abuse involved?


Cynthia [00:09:50] So you raise an important point about what consumers can do. CBP is using its authorities. However, consumers can do their part to address this human rights problem. Consumers can use their economic power to, in a sense, tell businesses that they will not tolerate forced labor and the goods that they buy, whether it’s clothing, linens, blankets, hair accessories, electronics, or other goods found online and in stores that we both know that they may produce goods that have incorporated slavery into it with from the use of those workers. So, what does this look like for consumers? And we want consumers to be much more educated and informed. One thing they can do is to shop directly with reputable retailers. Another thing is checking retailers’ websites to verify that they have fair trade policies and corporate social responsibility programs. And also, they can research industries and regions where there’s a high risk of forced labor.


Sandie [00:11:01] So let me ask you a couple of questions because I’m from California and we pass the Supply Chain Transparency Act in 2010, but it doesn’t have any teeth. What CBP is doing now has teeth because you can stop those products. And my closest port where I’ve seen the WROs happen is at Long Beach Port here in Southern California. And so, when I went to a website and I looked for their policy, I was going to order shirts, for example. They said they had a zero-tolerance policy, but they didn’t actually have evidence of checking that supply chain. How do you check the supply chain so that you can detain those orders?


Cynthia [00:11:52] So we base our enforcement on the use of intelligent targeting. So, we receive allegations of forced labor from a variety of sources, including private citizens, government agencies, media, non-governmental organizations, or civil society organizations. And we use that information to target the shipments based on the information that we’re receiving electronically when the shipments are in route. And so, we’re able to intercede on those shipments that are arriving and take appropriate actions.


Sandie [00:12:31] So now you also brought up the corporate social responsibility agenda, and when I think about that, it seems like a very benevolent approach to the issue of slavery and labor exploitation, and labor trafficking. But in reality, the corporations have a lot more power than they have brought to the table in the past. And do you think that with this new approach that they will take a stronger in-house approach to reduce the risk for any of their products being detained?


Cynthia [00:13:17] I do think with the passage of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, the two thousand fifteen that are major corporations are on notice. And I think they’re very much concerned, and they don’t want to be caught in a situation where we detain this shipment because of information that we have and that ultimately, they should have if they exercise good corporate responsibility in this area. So, we do think those you know, the majority of companies want to do things the right way, given that they have sufficient information to do so. And it really is their responsibility to ensure that their supply chains are free of forced labor, that they’re clean, not tainted. And so, we think with the use of withhold release orders that it is very much a deterrent because major companies, their reputation is on the line and their brand is on the line. And so, I do think they are taking notice. They are, in fact, taking notice and taking steps ultimately that will address the problem.


Sandie [00:14:28] So this will help especially large corporations move more towards compliance and creating risk management policy in their industry. Right.


Cynthia [00:14:40] That is our strong belief that, again, having the information we publish, all of our withhold release orders are published on CBP of the Department of Labor publishes a list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor. The Department of State publishes a trafficking in-persons report. And we know that there is a lot of information, more and more information being made available to companies to exercise their due diligence in this area. They can’t afford to keep their head in the sand on this issue.


Sandie [00:15:17] I love that. And I’ve been told that CBP is the largest law enforcement agency in the country. Is that true?


Cynthia [00:15:26] It is the largest federal law enforcement agency.


Sandie [00:15:29] And I’ve been working with federal task forces for more than a decade. And I’ve never had CBP represented on the task force. Is that something that you see happening in the future?


Cynthia [00:15:44] So we do work with other federal agencies to make sure that we have a one U.S. government approach toward addressing terrible global problems. We do have folks that participate on task forces.


Sandie [00:15:58] Oh, that’s really exciting. I’m just imagining ramping up labor trafficking cases here in Southern California because of this new way of addressing that kind of commerce right here from entering. And I think years back, I did an awareness event for a small business association here in Orange County. And I remember telling them that this matters to them because it made it so that their competitors could underbid them because they used slave labor. So, from a national economy, is that a fair evaluation?


Cynthia [00:16:46] Absolutely, foreign companies that utilize people in a forced labor capacity are able to lower their production costs and in fact, undermine the economic competitiveness of American businesses. You know that is unfair trade and ultimately it does impact US business’s ability to compete in a fair and competitive manner.


Sandie [00:17:13] That’s an encouraging argument for our local economy, for businesses to consider and to begin to develop compliance policies instead of benevolence agendas. So how would you counsel a small business that doesn’t have the same kind of resources to be able to figure out if they’re ordering products that may be withheld?


Cynthia [00:17:49] Well, there is quite a bit of information that’s available publicly, and one will find that we’ll see forced labor manifested in certain industries and regions of the world. So, the smaller and midsize companies research online. Again, the Department of Labor has a list. There’s the Department of State, but basically, it tends to run or be more prevalent in certain industries. And so, if you have a smaller business is looking to engage in a certain type of business, they would be well served to do some research upfront, just like they would market research. This should be incorporated into the decisions to engage in a certain industry.


Sandie [00:18:39] OK, so I’m thinking from the perspective of building stronger community awareness, eyes and ears are labor trafficking subcommittee in Los Angeles is always talking about more eyes and ears at the community level, and small business is the backbone of our community. So, creating trainings to teach them how to do that kind of research. You mentioned going to the Department of Labor for their report. And then can you give the website for CBP, with your list?


Cynthia [00:19:20] So our list is on CBP.gov.


Sandie [00:19:26] OK. So, if I was talking to my students, I would tell them they need to triangulate their data and look at the DOL Web page, the CBP Web page, and then go to that State Department Trafficking in Persons report as well. Are there any other ways to do supply chain transparency research?


Cynthia [00:19:50] So you know that one of the things I’ve learned recently is that the United Nations has reports as well that a country reports that report any violations of human rights treaties that are enforced. And so that is another resource if, again, a business is just doing general research about particular regions in the world and industries.


Sandie [00:20:15] OK, so this is going to be an area where we’ll start moving forward in providing training. Does CBP do training for the community, for businesses?


Cynthia [00:20:28] We do conduct outreach. I’m very much about educating through webinars and conferences.


Sandie [00:20:35] OK, so that’s going to be an area we’re going to start promoting with our task force community for sure. What is the most promising practice that you think will move this forward in 2021?


Cynthia [00:20:51] I think from all fronts, as you as you are mentioning, Dr. Morgan, is that we have to do more to educate consumers and we have to do more to educate our businesses, especially those who don’t have the maybe the resources that major companies do. And with the Customs and Border Protection, we’re going to continue doing all that we can to ensure that we are working to identify those goods that are destined for our shores and to ensure that they do not have forced labor in the supply chain.


Sandie [00:21:26] And when I talk to folks in the State Department and they tell me how they put together the Trafficking in Persons report, a lot of that intelligence that you mentioned at the beginning really begins at the local level with nonprofits, community leaders, and working with a lot of our embassy and consulate people. How does that work for gathering the data that CBP is using?


Cynthia [00:21:59] So, as I mentioned, we receive allegations of forced labor from a variety of sources and we do collaborate with other federal agencies in the information that they do have, as well as with non-governmental organizations, and also firsthand accounts of forced labor. We get reports from investigative reporters, also great sources, and then we continue to build our research again where authorities reside, particularly with respect to goods that are destined for the United States. And so that is a significant piece in the US authorities that we have. And so that’s where we focus our energies.


Sandie [00:22:47] OK, and when you mention investigative reporters, I start thinking of some of the writers I’ve been reading and talking about Southeast Asia and the fishing industry, illicit computer parts, mining in Africa. So those are the kinds of things that you’re suggesting we should be watching regionally.


Cynthia [00:23:10] Yes, we pick up those same sources and then we move to investigate and build those cases and again track them to the United States because that’s where authorities lie most recently. You mentioned different countries where we kind of see this happening in that on December the 2nd, CBP announced a new WRO on cotton and cotton products that are originating from this Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp. that we call XPCC. And I’m sure you saw the recent reporting on this over the last few months regarding some of the atrocities that allegedly occurring there. And this company in Xinjiang, XPCC, Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp., is a Chinese state-owned paramilitary organization with connections to serious human rights abuses against the Uyghur people. Abuses include forced labor, mass arbitrary detentions, and severe physical abuse. So, we’ve been successful in issuing that are that WRO that we think will have a significant impact.


Sandie [00:24:28] That’s outstanding, and I think that many of those products that are made from cotton then get interwoven in other products that enter the U.S. as well. So, if something comes that maybe a shoe that uses cotton, if you can trace it to XPCC, then it’s not going to be allowed to have entry to the U.S., is that correct?


Cynthia [00:24:56] That’s how it will work.


Sandie [00:24:58] I’m excited about seeing this. I’m encouraged because I love how our Live2Free students have from the beginning used as their motto just choices. And we should vote with our spending choices. So, an American consumer, an American corporation, and an American business leader can make a difference to end human trafficking. We’re so excited for the emerging possibilities in working with Customs Border Protection. Thank you so much, Cynthia, for being part of our podcast today.


Cynthia [00:25:36] Thank you for inviting me again. This is an enormous problem; global problem and we’re honored to serve in this way to do our part at Customs and Border Protection to stop those goods that are tainted with forced labor. And thank you again for inviting me.


Sandie [00:25:53] Thank you.


Dave [00:25:55] Thank you to you both for this conversation. And as Cynthia mentioned, this is such a global challenge that we are all working on together. And we’re inviting you also to take the first step after this conversation. Take a moment to go online and download a copy of Sandie’s free book, The Five Things You Must Know: A QuickStart Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. That guide will teach you the five critical things that Sandie has identified that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access to that by going over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. We’ve mentioned a few resources during this conversation. Also, you can find at Endinghumantrafficking.org. In addition, all of our past episodes and links. And finally, we invite you to consider attending the Ensure Justice conference that will be hosting on March 5th and 6th, 2021. It’s all virtual this year, of course. So, it’s a great opportunity to engage, even if you haven’t engaged in the conference before. If you go over to Ensurejustice.com, that’s the very best place to find out more about Ensure Justice. And this year’s events. Will be back in two weeks for our next conversation Sandie. Thank you so much. And look forward to seeing you in two weeks.


Sandie [00:27:10] Thanks, Dave.


Dave [00:27:11] Take care, everybody.


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