WASHINGTON — The U.S. government blocked imports of seafood Friday from the entire fleet of a Chinese company that authorities say forced crew members to work in slave-like conditions that led to the deaths of several Indonesian fishermen last year.
Customs and Border Protection said it will place an immediate hold on any imports linked to the more than 30 vessels operated by Dalian Ocean Fishing, under a U.S. law that bars goods suspected to have been produced with forced labor.
Imports from Dalian, which primarily fishes for high-grade tuna, have exceeded $20 million as recently as 2018. Amid financial troubles, and a greater focus on the Asian market, the shipments have dropped. CBP said the company shipped $1.8 million worth of cargo to the U.S. in 2019; nearly $321,000 in 2020; and $763,000 through April 30 of this year.
“We will not tolerate any amount derived from forced labor,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters as he announced the measure.
CBP issued what is known as a withhold release order that halts shipments that have suspected links to forced labor, under a law that has been on the books for decades, ostensibly to protect U.S. producers from unfair competition.
The law has been used with increased frequency in recent years, given the growing awareness of the prevalence of what is essentially modern-day slavery in a range of industries, with workers forced to work long hours for low pay, or none at all, and subjected to violence.
CBP found that Dalian's operations, across the fleet, met all 11 criteria for forced labor laid out by the International Labor Organization, including the holding back of wages, inhumane conditions and physical intimidation, said John Leonard, the acting executive assistant commissioner of the agency's Office of Trade.
“This was a rather egregious example," Leonard said.
Both the State Department and Labor Department have also documented abusive conditions in the Chinese fishing industry, where mostly foreign crews often work 18 to 22 hours per day under abysmal conditions.
U.S. authorities have used the Tariff Act of 1930 to halt imports from specific companies, individual fishing vessels and all cotton and tomato products from the Xinjiang region of China, where the Chinese government is waging a brutal assimilation campaign against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups.
The announcement Friday marks the first time that the U.S. has sought to block imports from a company's entire fishing fleet, a sign that the CBP's investigation found evidence of widespread abuse on Dalian vessels around the world.
Indonesia's government in May 2020 accused the company of “inhuman” treatment of fishermen from that country, with dozens of men forced to work 18 hours a day for no pay or less than agreed upon. It said the conditions led to illnesses that killed at least three fishermen, whose bodies were cast overboard into the Pacific Ocean.
Dalian did not immediately respond to a request for comment made through its website.
The company has had recent financial troubles, but Leonard said it appears to be reorganizing and planning to resume operations. “We need to be vigilant,” he said.