Forced Labor Imports: DHS Increased Resources and Enforcement Efforts, but Needs to Improve Workforce Planning and Monitoring

GAO-21-106 Published: Oct 27, 2020. Publicly Released: Oct 27, 2020.
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Fast Facts

Across the world, millions of adults and children are forced into labor or service, raising humanitarian and economic concerns. Importing products made by forced labor is banned in the United States.

Customs and Border Protection conducts civil enforcement to prevent goods made by forced labor from entering the country. Immigration and Customs Enforcement pursues criminal violations, such as human traffickers profiting off of forced labor.

Although CBP increased enforcement efforts to address forced labor, it didn't determine if it had enough staff with the right skills. Our recommendations included that CBP assess its workforce needs.

cranes at a port

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Since 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has increased its resources to enforce a prohibition on importing goods made with forced labor, but has not determined its workforce needs. CBP formed the Forced Labor Division in 2018 to lead its efforts, and increased expenditures for the division from roughly $1 million in fiscal year 2018 to $1.4 million in fiscal year 2019. However, CBP has not assessed and documented the staffing levels or skills needed for the Forced Labor Division. For example, the division suspended some ongoing investigations due to a staff shortage and has plans to expand and train its workforce; however, the division has not assessed the number, type, locations, or specialized skills of positions it needs to achieve programmatic results. Without assessing its workforce needs, the division lacks reasonable assurance that it has the right number of people, with the right skills, in the right places.

CBP has increased forced labor investigations and civil enforcement actions, but managers lack complete and consistent data summarizing cases. CBP detained shipments under 13 Withhold Release Orders (WRO) from 2016 through 2019, as shown in the figure below. However, the Forced Labor Division uses incomplete and inconsistent summary data to monitor its investigations. For example, data were missing on the sources of evidence collected for almost all active cases. Incomplete and inconsistent summary data on the characteristics and status of cases may hinder managers' effective monitoring of case progress and enforcement efforts.

Figure: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Forced Labor Withhold Release Orders, 2016 through 2019

Figure: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Forced Labor Withhold Release Orders, 2016 through 2019

With regard to criminal violations, DHS's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has increased its resources to investigate allegations of forced labor, including those related to U.S. imports. ICE coordinates criminal investigations of forced labor, conducted in the U.S. and abroad. ICE reported spending about $40 million on forced labor investigations in fiscal year 2019, an increase of over 50 percent since 2016. Forced labor investigations often involve a range of criminal violations, including violations that are not related to the importation of goods. As such, reported expenditures include costs for cases on related issues, such as human trafficking.

Why GAO Did This Study

Forced labor is a global problem in which individuals are exploited to perform labor or services. The International Labour Organization estimates that forced labor generates profits of $150 billion a year globally. CBP is responsible for enforcing Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which prohibits the importation of goods made with forced labor. CBP has authority to detain shipments when information indicates that forced labor produced the goods. ICE is responsible for investigating potential crimes related to forced labor, and importers may be subject to prosecution.

GAO was asked to review the status of DHS resources for implementing the Section 307 prohibition on forced labor imports, following an amendment of the law in 2016. This report examines (1) the extent to which CBP assessed agency needs for the enforcement of the prohibition on forced labor imports, (2) the outcome of CBP enforcement activities and monitoring of such efforts, and (3) ICE resources for investigations on forced labor. GAO reviewed CBP and ICE documents and data, and interviewed agency officials. This is a public version of a sensitive report GAO issued in July 2020. Information that CBP deemed sensitive has been omitted.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations, including that CBP assess the workforce needs of the Forced Labor Division, and improve its forced labor summary case data. CBP concurred with all three recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Customs and Border Protection The Commissioner of CBP should ensure that the Office of Trade performs and documents a needs assessment to identify potential gaps in the workforce of its Forced Labor Division. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In commenting on the draft GAO report, CBP concurred with GAO's recommendation and stated that CBP's Office of Trade will develop a human capital needs assessment to identify CBPs resource requirements to enforce import restrictions on goods produced with forced labor. In May 2021, CBP reported that the Office of Trade began a process to determine staffing requirements and assess needs in its forced labor mission area. CBP stated in September 2021 that the Office of Trade continues to develop a workload staffing model to determine the agency's staffing requirements and assess needs. In June 2022, CBP officials stated that an initial workforce needs assessment for the Forced Labor Division has been completed. GAO is awaiting additional information on the results of this workforce needs assessment and continues to monitor agency actions related to this recommendation.
United States Customs and Border Protection The Commissioner of CBP should ensure that the Forced Labor Division issues guidance or takes other steps to improve the completeness, consistency, and accuracy of its summary data on active, suspended, and inactive forced labor investigations. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
GAO's October 2020 report, FORCED LABOR IMPORTS: DHS Increased Resources and Enforcement Efforts, but Needs to Improve Workforce Planning and Monitoring, found that the spreadsheet the CBP Forced Labor Division used to collect summary data about its investigations contained incomplete information. We also found that the division did not have written guidance for maintaining these records in its case tracking spreadsheet, including clear and consistent definitions for terms, and how or when personnel should input and manage data. Federal internal control standards state that management should use quality information to achieve the entity's objectives. We noted that because the division did not have guidance in place that ensures analysts populate the division's case tracking spreadsheet with complete and consistent summary information, management did not have reasonable assurance that it used quality data to inform enforcement priorities, track performance indicators, and make resource and management decisions to effectively achieve its objectives. As a result, GAO recommended that CBP ensure that the Forced Labor Division issues guidance or takes other steps to improve the completeness, consistency, and accuracy of its summary data on active, suspended, and inactive forced labor investigations. CBP concurred with our recommendation, and in response reported to GAO that as of March 2022, the Office of Trade had developed and implemented an automated case management system for the intake, analysis, and investigation of forced labor allegations and enforcement actions. According to CBP, this case management system enables users to record information, store documents, and collaborate on the determination of investigations and enforcement actions. The new case management system and the written guidance will help the Forced Labor Division standardize its data on investigations, and enable managers to more effectively track case status and monitor analyst workloads. These actions will assist CBP in ensuring management has quality data to inform enforcement priorities and make resource and management decisions to effectively achieve its forced labor enforcement objectives.
United States Customs and Border Protection The Commissioner of CBP should ensure that the Office of Trade sets targets for key performance indicators related to the enforcement of the prohibition on forced labor imports. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
GAO's October 2020 report, FORCED LABOR IMPORTS: DHS Increased Resources and Enforcement Efforts, but Needs to Improve Workforce Planning and Monitoring, found that the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Office of Trade had not set targets for the Forced Labor Division's key performance indicators to monitor its civil enforcement efforts. Federal internal control standards state that management should establish a baseline to monitor and evaluate the internal control system and establish activities to monitor performance measures and indicators. We noted until the CBP Office of Trade sets targets for forced labor key performance indicators, managers in the Forced Labor Division cannot perform thorough internal evaluations of its enforcement efforts, and as a result, may be unable to assess performance and efficiently use division resources to achieve its objectives. As a result, GAO recommended that CBP ensure that the Office of Trade sets targets for key performance indicators related to the enforcement of the prohibition on forced labor imports. CBP concurred with our recommendation, and in response reported to GAO that as of November 2020, the Office of Trade set fiscal year 2021 targets for its forced labor enforcement key performance indicators. Eight new targets were created using fiscal year 2020 performance data as a baseline. According to CBP, they also developed new administrative key performance indicators to measure staff performance in the areas of work processing and cycle times as part of these improvements. These actions will assist CBP in assessing its workload, staffing, and results of enforcement actions, as well as allow CBP managers to monitor ongoing operations and progress toward CBP's strategic goals.

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