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Modern slavery is deeply embedded in Canadian economic supply chains where it is out of sight from companies and consumers. Photo by lalesh aldarwish from Pexels

Senate takes on slave labour with bill

  • February 15, 2020

OTTAWA -- An organization associated with the Catholic Church in Canada is happy to see the issue of slave labour being addressed within the Canadian government, but says that a proposed bill introduced in the Canadian Senate falls short of taking meaningful steps to actually have a real impact.

The proposed bill, introduced Feb. 5 by independent Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne, who is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking and is based on work done by Liberal Scarborough-Guildwood MP John McKay in the previous Parliamentary session, demands that Canadian companies report on their supply chains and disclose if there is the use of forced labour anywhere along the production process.

“Modern slavery is deeply embedded in Canadian economic supply chains where it is out of sight from companies and consumers. If you have purchased shrimp, shopped for clothes, consumed chocolate or bought products with lithium batteries then you may have inadvertently supported supply chains tainted with slavery,” a press release announcing the introduction of the Modern Slavery Act in the Senate states.

The act would allow the Minister of Public Safety the power to investigate a company if it doesn’t comply with the reporting process set out in the Act. 

It would also change the customs tariff to allow for prohibition of importing goods produced by forced and child labour, and could levy a fine of up to $250,000 if a company doesn’t follow the reporting rules or obstructs an investigation.

“On the whole it is a good thing to the extent that the government is starting to take a look at this, but overall it doesn’t go far enough,” said Minaz Kerawala, a communications officer with Development and Peace, the international development arm and charity of the Canadian Catholic bishops.

“There has to be real consequences, not just reporting and a fine that can be written off as the cost of doing business,” he said.

“The net should be made a lot larger, and there should be real consequences to demand corporate accountability,” Kerawala said.

But while Development and Peace questions how effective the Modern Slavery Act will be, one of the key people behind the proposed law told Canadian Catholic News that the proposal has “real teeth.”

“Some could say it is just the cost of doing business, but there is real reputational damage for a company to be associated with slavery,” said McKay in an interview.

McKay, who introduced a similar private members’ bill in the House of Commons in the past, said that the damage to a company’s reputation being linked to slavery could have more impact than any level of fine that a government can impose.

“Nobody wants to be associated with slavery,” McKay said.

Miville-Dechêne said the act would give consumers the ability to make informed decisions on what companies they want to do business with.

“By requiring companies to be more transparent, this bill will give tools to consumers who do not want to contribute to modern slavery. We must stop being complicit in violating the rights of millions of people condemned to forced labour,” Miville-Dechêne said.

The issue of slave labour has been an ongoing concern of the Catholic Church and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have repeatedly raised the issue and called for greater corporate responsibility surrounding their production processes.

In 2013 for the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, Pope Francis launched an appeal to end slave labour, saying, “I ask my brothers and sisters in faith and all men and women of good will for a decisive choice to combat trafficking in persons, which includes slave labour.” 

International Justice Mission Canada vice-president of programs and operations Kevin Dixon said the proposed legislation isn’t perfect, but is a step in the right direction.

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