Here at Vox, we most often write about Congress’s inability to pass legislation that both Republicans and President Obama can agree on.
But this week, the president is expected to sign a bill into law that serves as a model for how government accountability should work. The bill, technically an amendment to the 1930 Tariff Act, seeks to ban imports of fish caught using slave labor in Southeast Asia.
The problem first came to light in a series of articles this summer from the New York Times and the Associated Press, chronicling the lives of indentured migrants who are forced to fish for seafood that eventually finds its way to US markets, including shrimp sold in grocery stores like Walmart and Whole Foods and pet food sold by brands including Meow Mix. The practice is most prevalent off the shores of Thailand, and the US is the single biggest customer of Thai seafood.
The stories horrified readers with their vivid descriptions of slave-driving overseers, squalid conditions, and migrant deaths. Together, the outlets shared the George Polk Award for foreign reporting, a prestigious journalism award, and emboldened human rights activists to call for bans on imported seafood fished using slave labor.
The issue gained quiet bipartisan support from lawmakers, and last Thursday, without much fanfare, they acted on it. In a 75-20 vote, the Senate passed a bill banning the import of all products produced using convict, forced, or indentured labor. It closes an 85-year loophole in the Tariff Act, which permitted such products to be imported if American producers could not meet domestic demand.
Officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a federal agency partially responsible for preventing slave-made goods from entering the US, told the Times that without a ban, they struggled to keep imports of Thai seafood from entering the country because demand for the products was so high. But it looks as though the pressure drummed up by increased journalistic scrutiny has affected the public’s unfettered desire for these products and, by extension, the political calculus allowing Congress to make the change.
"I think most Americans were horrified to learn that the fish in the pet food they give to their cats and dogs was being caught by children forced to work on ships against their will," Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio who sponsored the bill, told the Times.
Once the president signs the ban into law, it will become yet another tool in the administration’s push to discourage the use of slave labor in Southeast Asia more broadly.