Tip Sheets

Alaska pollock customs dispute exposes US trade system flaws

Media Contact

Lindsey Knewstub

A customs dispute at the U.S.-Canada border is threatening America’s supply of Alaska pollock – the key fish used for fish sticks and fast-food sandwiches – and raising concerns of permanent disruptions to the seafood supply chain.

Desirée LeClercq is a professor of employment law at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and an expert on labor provisions in trade agreements. She says the recent dispute exposes flaws in our trading system including outdated legislation meant to protect U.S. ship owners and operators.

Desirée LeClercq 

Proskauer Employment and Labor Law Assistant Professor

“The current action taken by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol against shipping companies carrying fish products that are vital to American workers and businesses exposes two flaws in our trading system. First, that the Jones Act, which requires that goods shipped between U.S. ports be transported on U.S.-owned ships, is in critical need of an overhaul. Second, that crafting a trade policy to protect American workers is hard.

“On the surface, legislation like the Jones Act appears to be in the national interest because, in theory, it protects U.S. shipowners and operators from foreign competition. That theory no longer applies in modern day, transnational practices, where stopping goods at the borders hurts domestic production more than it does the exporters. The benefits to U.S. shipowners are reaped at significant costs to workers and businesses that rely on shipped goods, including in this case Alaska pollock.

“To my second point, the Biden Administration has recently launched a ‘worker centered’ trade policy that purports to give workers a seat at the trade table. However, the rights of workers in trade relations are not made and broken at the negotiating table. When U.S. laws such as the Jones Act (and the National Labor Relations Act, among others) fail to provide robust protections for all workers in the United States, including those who depend on imports, then efforts to reserve work for Americans or otherwise stave off foreign competition are rendered meaningless.”

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