The People’s Choice for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America medals for 2021 went to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection team that fined a Chicago-based sugar substitute company $575,000 for allegations of imports made with forced labor.

The Sammies medals, run by the Partnership for Public Service, recognize federal employees from across the government who have made a significant difference or impact in their fields. The People’s Choice medal is unique, in that members of the public select the winner from the Sammies finalists. This year a record 113,000 votes were cast for the award.

“The team’s efforts have made an impact on thousands of vulnerable workers and demonstrated the nation’s leadership in championing human rights,” said Brenda Smith, CBP’s former executive assistant commissioner for trade, in a Partnership for Public Service profile.

“This division has placed a national spotlight on the issue of forced labor and the need for industry and consumer due diligence.”

The Customs and Border Protection team, led by Trade Remedy Law Enforcement Directorate Executive Director Ana Hinojosa and Deputy Executive Director Eric Choy, issued the first major fine for forced labor imports in 25 years, after Congress expanded the agency’s authorities under the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015. The stevia importer, Pure Circle U.S.A., refuted the finding after the investigation.

“In the early days [of the trade act], I think there was some interpretation by people in the trade community that this was a political issue and that it would only be something of interest to the administration in place at the time,” said Hinojosa said in an Aug. 11 Partnership for Public Service interview about the win.

“Each president has come out very strongly for human rights, very strongly against forced labor, and that has been very important.”

The International Labor Organization estimates that 25 million people around the world are subject to involuntary labor, generating around $150 billion a year.

According to Choy, the team’s success came about from frequent coordination with other agencies, civil society and investigative media.

“To be working together and being a part of that solution, while the problem is huge, really is what public service means,” said Choy.

“A good part of the work we’re doing is also to protect the American economy,” said Hinojosa.

“I actually started my career with Customs as a student in a university. I came in in an internship program, and I thought that I was going to stay a year and move on to other things. Within that first year, I fell in love with the mission, I fell in love with the work and the people.”

The public selected Hinojosa, Choy and their team for the People’s Choice Award from among 29 finalists. The winners for the other six award categories will be announced later this year.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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