UK freeports plan raises illicit trade fears

Sergio Souza, Unsplash

The UK government has promised that a plan to create eight freeports with low-tax zones will boost the post-Brexit economy, but has also sparked fears that they could allow flows of illicit trade into the country.

The designated free-trade zones (FTZs) – due to be created at Felixstowe/Harwich, Liverpool, Hull, Southampton, London Gateway, Plymouth, Teesside and East Midlands airport – will attract investment and job creation in some hard-hit areas of the country, say backers of the proposal, headed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Goods can be landed, stored, handled, manufactured or reconfigured and re-exported at freeports without being subjected to customs tariffs. In addition, companies operating inside the sites will be offered temporary tax breaks, mostly lasting five years.

In the other camp are those who point to the experience with FTZs in other parts of the world in facilitating the trade in things like counterfeit goods and drug trafficking.

In 2018, a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and the EU Intellectual Property Office found that FTZs were linked to a 5.9 per cent rise in the value of counterfeit goods exported from hosting countries.

“These results confirm the anecdotal evidence pointing to the misuse of FTZs to conduct illicit trade, and they should be a prompt for future actions,” it concluded.

Since then, the EU has started to pay more attention to the activities of the 82 FTZs within its borders post-Brexit, launching new rules to crack down on what the European Commission says is a “high incidence of corruption, tax evasion, [and] criminal activity.”

The UK government reckons it can move ahead with its freeport plan without the risk of stimulating illicit trade, based in part on the findings of a report published last year by independent research body the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI).

That study acknowledges the evidence of criminal activity taking place at freeports around the world, saying it most commonly takes the form of counterfeit goods, drug trafficking, smuggling of untaxed goods or trade-based money laundering.

Those dangers may be mitigated, it says, through careful risk assessment at each geographical location where freeports are established, making sure crime prevention measures are proportional to those risks, and close vetting of businesses wishing to operate in them.

The freeport operators should also be regularly placed under scrutiny to assess their effectiveness in “discharging their security-related responsibilities,” and recommendations laid out by the OECD should also be adhered to.

The latter includes making sure the authorities have access to goods and related documentation, ideally digital, in addition to screening of businesses operating in the FTZ.

In its notice for the tender for freeport operators published last November, the government says operators “must adhere to the OECD code of conduct…and the specific anti-illicit trade and security measures therein,” as well as the UK’s obligations on money laundering, terrorist funding and transparent transfer of funds.

RUSI’s research has shown that a lack of oversight in freeports provides opportunities “to manufacture, assemble, tranship, relabel and repackage illegal goods, including counterfeit medicines, electronics and fashion items.”

It also notes that ‘leakage’ is common, where goods are smuggled from a freeport into a host economy, thus avoiding relevant checks on health and safety standards, import taxes and VAT.

At least seven freeports operated in the UK between 1984 and 2012, when the government stopped renewing freeport licenses and switched its attention to “enterprise zones”, which also provide tax breaks in a bid to encourage industrial growth and community regeneration.

RUSI notes that the US does seem to be able to operate FTZs without increasing the risk of illicit trade, and says it is “reassuring that, for some parts of government at least, tackling economic crime remains top of the agenda.

Critics of the UK plan, including the opposition Labour Party, think there are other downsides as well.

One viewpoint is that rather than growing the economy, the freeports will simply move it around the country, benefitting deprived areas but providing no net gain overall.

Some also argue that the net result will be even worse – a reduction in tax contributions from industry to the treasury – with businesses elsewhere undercut by those operating within freeport. Others meanwhile are concerned that the rights of people working within the FTZs will be diluted.

“If the government thinks freeports are a magic bullet that will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, bring billions of additional pounds to the Exchequer and radically transform an area it is mistaken,” according to Professor Catherine Barnard, deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe.

“That is not to say they should not be created but the thought they’re going to transform the wealth and prosperity of this country is simply untrue. It will help the regions that get a freeport – but possibly to the detriment of those that don’t.”

Source: Securing Industry, Phil Taylor, 10 March 2021

ICC – Controlling the zone: balancing facilitation and control to combat illicit trade in the world’s free trade zones

Photo by Noel Broda on Unsplash

Herewith a 2020 update of the ICC BASCAP report assessing the environment and highlighting trends in counterfeiting and other forms of illicit trade facilitated within free trade zones.

The Risks

Free Trade Zones (FTZs) provide significant opportunities for legitimate business and play a critical role in global trade as well as economic growth for the host nation.  However, our updated research has continued to confirm that insufficient oversight remains a major enabler of illicit activities.  Since the publication of our previous 2013 report, there have not been vast improvements in limiting criminal activities within FTZs.  In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic has increased vulnerability for abuses by criminal actors who take advantage of supply chain shortages and increased demands as well as relaxed oversight often because of such things as quarantines that have softened Customs control.

Counterfeiters use transit or transhipment of goods, through multiple, geographically diverse FTZs for no other purpose than to disguise the illicit nature of the products. Once introduced into an FTZ, counterfeit goods may undergo a series of economic operations, including assembly, manufacturing, processing, warehousing, re-packaging, and re-labelling. Once completed, the goods can be imported directly to the national territory of the hosting state or re-exported to another country for distribution or to another FTZ, where the process is repeated.

Key recommendations:

Our 2020 report promotes a set of specific policy and legislative recommendations on how to preserve and expand the benefits of FTZs for legitimate traders and protect the public and honest businesses from predatory practices. These recommendations are based on a review of the international and national legal frameworks governing FTZs, including how they are implemented and enforced.

Suggested recommendations include:

  • empowering Customs with jurisdiction over day-to-day operations within FTZs
  • strengthening relationship between Customs and FTZs
  • clarifying and declaring that FTZs remain under the jurisdiction of the national Customs authority
  • enhancing data sharing between Customs and the private sector
  • strengthening national government adherence to international conventions and implementation of international standards
  • legislatively ensuring that strict penalties are in place, including criminal sanctions where appropriate, against perpetrators of illegal activities in FTZs
  • that manufacturers and shippers recognize and use the ICC World Chambers Foundation’s International Certificates of Origin (COs) Accreditation Chain which is a program that accredits chambers of commerce issuing COs wishing to guarantee their commitment to the highest level of quality, implementing transparent and accountable issuance and verification procedures. Accredited chambers will receive a distinctive internationally recognized quality classification, reinforcing their integrity and credibility as competent trusted third parties in the issuance of COs.

Additionally, the new document also provides specific recommendations such as drawing on international agreements, lessons learned from effective and ineffective national legislation, the experience of IP rights holders, and legislative and regulatory measures to enforce intellectual property right protection in FTZs.  These specific recommendations are delineated in the report for action by the World Customs Organization, World Trade Organization, national governments, and FTZ operators. Effective implementation of the measures delineated for each of these bodies will go a long way in securing FTZs from illicit traders.

Download the Document via this hyperlink

Source: International Chamber of Commerce

Illicit cigarette use declines in EU but production rises

The consumption of illicit cigarettes fell below 8 per cent of total cigarette use last year, but was still equivalent to nearly 39bn smokes and €9.5bn in lost tax revenues, says a new report.

The latest edition of the annual study – carried out by KPMG on behalf of tobacco giant Philip Morris International – also found that imports of illicit cigarettes from non-EU countries such as Ukraine and Belarus declined in 2019, with law enforcement reports suggesting there are “increasing volumes from illegal factories within the EU.”

Illicit ‘whites’ with no country specific labelling – i.e. legally produced cigarettes that are smuggled and traded illegally, often through free trade zones (FTZs) – remain the largest element of the counterfeit and contraband (C&C) category, representing 23.1 per cent of total EU illicit consumption or 9bn cigarettes.

Counterfeit of brands owned by manufacturers participating in empty pack surveys grew to 7.6bn cigarettes, an increase of more than 38 percent over 2018’s figure, and is the highest level ever recorded by KPMG. Counterfeit consumption was the highest in the UK and Greece.

The overall picture is one of increasing sophistication by the criminal networks behind the illicit trade, with multiple production units to compensate if one is raised, and increasingly high tech manufacturing equipment. New groups are also emerging that are focusing specifically on smuggling raw and fine cut tobacco.

“Illicit manufacturers are producing counterfeit, established and new illicit white brands to order at scale for organisations and smugglers who can arrange distribution of large volumes, either in large shipments or increasingly via high frequency, low volume shipments,” says KPMG.

Criminal groups are exploiting new distribution channels, such as rail, as it is faster than traditional shipping routes, as well as courier packages which are small and hard for law enforcement to detect, according to the report.

“The continued decline of illicit tobacco trade in the EU is a positive development and reinforces the importance of supply chain control measures, strict enforcement, and collaboration in combating this issue,” said Alvise Giustiniani, vice president of Illicit Trade Prevention at PMI.

However, while considerable efforts have taken place to stem contraband cigarettes from flowing into the EU, “we are once again seeing criminal organisations shifting their operations to stay one step ahead of anti-illicit programmes, according to the company.

Source: Phil Taylor, Securing Industry, 26 June 2020

WCO – Free Zones and the Necessity for Enhanced Customs Involvement

Coega SEZ, South Africa

The expansion of Free Zones has been mainly driven by political decisions closely affiliated with national economic development strategies. In some countries Customs is the primary governmental authority that regulates and governs Free Zones, while in others Free Zones are governed by other authorities, with less involvement from Customs. Depending on the institutional set-up, the scope and degree of Customs control in Free Zones and the economic operations carried out there varies considerably from one Free Zone to another. 

Existing literature reveals that Free Zones attract not only legitimate business but also illicit trade or other illicit activities that take advantage of the regulatory exemptions of Free Zones. 

Numerous papers have outlined the risks associated with Free Zones, along with economic benefits. Most of them deal with the legality of Free Zones policies, particularly in relation to export subsidies as governed by the WTO Agreement. Several other papers have dealt with illicit activities that have been perpetrated by exploiting characteristics of Free Zones. Such illicit activities include money laundering, tax-evasion and trade in counterfeit goods or other illicit goods. 

The WCO research paper deals with Customs-related aspects of Free Zones, considering both the associated benefits and risks. The risks primarily concern illicit trade that exploits key aspects of Free Zones. 

Literature that focuses on risks associated with Free Zones, particularly illicit trade or other illicit activities, have several things in common. They tend to highlight the fact that supervision over cargoes/companies in Free Zones is somewhat relaxed in comparison with other parts of the national territory. The following factors have been pointed out or quoted, although details are rarely provided due to the technical nature of the topic. 

  • Relaxed controls inside Free Zones 
  • Insufficient Customs’ involvement in the operation of Free Zones 
  • Ease in setting up companies inside Free Zones 
  • Insufficient integration of Information Technology(IT) systems by governmental agencies inside Free Zones 

The WCO research paper’s key observations fall in line with those outlined above. It describes the low-level involvement of Customs in monitoring cargo movement and companies’ activities inside Free Zones. This includes Customs’ low-level involvement at the establishment phase of Free Zones, at the approving companies permitted to operate in Free Zones pahse, and during the day-to-day monitoring of cargoes in Free Zones. Limited Customs’ authority inside Free Zones is also mentioned. This paper touches upon relaxed Customs procedures/controls related to Free Zones and observes that they stem from Customs’ limited involvement and limited authority inside Free Zones. These limitations, combined with insufficient integration and utilization of IT, result in a lack of the requisite data concerning cargoes inside Free Zones, and render Customs’ risk-management-based controls – conducted for the purpose of preserving security and compliance without hindering legitimate cargo flows – virtually useless. 

The research paper considers the concept of ‘extraterritoriality’ concerning Free Zones, stemming from a misinterpretation of the definition of Free Zones contained in the WCO Revised Kyoto Convention (RKC), to be behind the aforementioned limited involvement by and limited authority of Customs. The definition within Annex D, Chapter 2 of the RKC does not state that Free Zones are geographically outside the Customs territory. The definition means that the Free Zone itself falls within the Customs territory. ‘Goods’ located in Free Zones are considered as being outside the Customs territory for duty/tax purposes only. 

WCO Research Paper No. 47 – ‘Extraterritoriality’ of Free Zones: The Necessity for Enhanced Customs Involvement

Source: WCO, Kenji Omi, September, 2019

Free zones – the potential pitfalls

sezFree zones are often seen as a cure-all remedy to the problems developing economies encounter when trying to attract FDI. However, the reality is that such projects need careful planning and long-term support if they are to fulfil such wishes. A report published by fDI Magazine, and featured online – fdiintelligence.com – covers the topic quite comprehensively. While the article it is titled ‘Free Zones’ it’s not quite certain whether all developments sited follow the same business model. Nonetheless it provides some interesting insight to developments across the globe. Of particular interest for Africa are references to developments in Rwanda, Botswana, and the Gambia. In the case of the latter, the Gambian government’s decision to legally enable companies to operate as standalone zones, whereby businesses are permitted to enjoy the benefits of being a ‘free zone’ entity without having to establish in the country’s business park, could enable Gambia to attract investors who wish to have a greater degree of choice over the location of their premises.

Some of the key messages of the article come in the form of cautionary’s –

“the ‘build it and they will come’ assumption over SEZs will not guarantee investor interest”

“while governments are quick to launch them with great fanfare, a lack of on-going support afterwards hinders the zone from developing to a competitive and world-class standard…many projects remain just that – a project”

“while the idea of clustering several companies from a few specific sectors sounds promising on paper, in practice this can be detrimental to foreign enterprises”.

Read the full report here!

Nigeria – Maximizing Opportunities in Free Trade Zones

Lagos Free Trade Zone

Lagos Free Trade Zone

So how come FTZs, IDZs, EPZs, etc are working in other African countries and not here in South Africa? This Day Live (Nigeria) offers some of the critical success factors which delineate such zones from the normal economic operations in a country. Are we missing the boat? The extent of economic and incentive offering can vary substantially between the different economic and trade zone models – some extremely liberal while others tend to the conservative. Obviously the more liberal and free the regulations are the more stringent the ‘guarantees’ and controls need to be. However, in today’s e-commercial world, risk to revenue can more than adequately be mitigated and managed with through risk management systems. Manufacturing and logistical supply chain operations are likewise managed in automated fashion. I guess the real issue lies in governments appetite for risk and more particularly its willingness to relax tax and labour laws within such zones. Furthermore, a sound economic roadmap demonstrating backward linkages to the local economy and outward linkages to international markets must be defined. Herein lies some of the difficulties which have plagued South African attempts at such economic offerings – no specific economic (export specific) goals. Limited financial/tax incentives for investors, and poor cooperation between the various organs of state to bring about a favourable investment climate.

Free Trade Zones (FTZs) are at the crux of the growth attributed to emerging markets. All the BRIC nations have used the FTZs as a buffer to economic meltdown particularly in the wake of the most recent financial and economic crises. The “great recession” of 2007 – 2009 saw the BRIC nations growing at the rates of 7% to 13%. Consequently, the importance of FTZs as well as maximizing opportunities therein cannot be over-emphasized. The literature defining FTZs vary, but they all have the following characteristics in common:

  • A clearly delimited and enclosed area of a national customs territory, often at an advantageous geographical location, with an infrastructure suited to the conduct of trade and industrial operations and subject to the principle of customs and fiscal segregation.
  • A clearly delineated industrial estate, which constitutes a free trade enclave in the customs and trade regime of a country, and where foreign manufacturing firms, mainly producing for export, benefit from a certain number of fiscal and financial incentives.
  • Industrial zones with special incentives set up to attract foreign investors, in which imported materials undergo some degree of processing before being re-exported.
  • Fulfilling their roles in having a positive effect on the host economy, regulators look at FTZs from a nationalist perspective. Inevitably, they seek the following benefits:
    • Creating jobs and income: one of the foremost reasons for the establishment of FTZs is the creation of employment.
    • Generating foreign exchange earnings and attracting foreign direct investment (FDI): measures designed to influence the size, location, or industry of a FDI investment project by affecting its relative cost or by altering the risks attached to it through inducements that are not available to comparable domestic investors are incentives to promoting FDI. Implicit in this statement lies the definition of FTZ. Other traits that are recognizable when discussing FDI’s include specially negotiated fiscal derogations, grants and soft loans, free land, job training, employment and infrastructure subsidies, product enhancement, R&D support and ad hoc exceptions and derogations from regulations. In addition to FDI, by promoting non-traditional exports, increased export earnings tend to have a positive impact on the exchange rate.
    • Transfer of technology: trans-national corporations (TNCs) are a dominant source of innovation and direct investment by them is a major mode of international technology transfer, possibly contributing to local innovative activities in host countries. It is a government’s primary obligation to its citizenry to provide attractive technology, innovative capacities and mastering, upgrading, and diffusing them throughout the domestic economy. Nevertheless, through national policies, international treaty making, market-friendly approaches, a host country gravitates from providing an enabling environment to stronger pro-innovation regimes that perpetually encourage technology transfer.

FTZs can be both publicly (i.e. government) and or privately owned and managed. Governments own the more traditional older zones, which tend to focus more on policy goals that are primarily socio-economic. They emphasize industry diversification, attracting FDI, job creation and the like. Privately-owned FTZs have the advantage of eliminating government bureaucracy, are more flexible, and are better prepared to deal with technological changes. The global trend towards privatization has made privately-run zones more popular and a number are highly successful. The role of government in the case of privately-run zones is to provide a competitive legal framework with attractive incentive packages that meet the World Trade Organization (WTO) requirements.

FTZ Operations in Nigeria

FTZs were established in 1991 in order to diversify Nigeria’s export activity that had been dominated by the hydrocarbon sector. By 2011, there were nine operational zones; ten under construction; and three in the planning stages. The governing legislation includes the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Act (NEPZA) and the Oil and Gas Export Free Zone Act (OGEFZA). Zones may be managed by public or private entities or a combination of both under supervision of the Authority. For the full article go to – This Day Live