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Mixed reviews for Canada’s anti-slavery bill

  • June 25, 2020

Everybody agrees modern slavery must end, but Canadian Catholics can’t quite agree on how best to accomplish that objective.

The International Labour Organization estimates there are 40 million modern-day slaves in the world when you count 24.9 million in forced labour and 15.4 million in forced marriages. That translates into 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1,000 people in the world.

Canada’s Senate has responded to this grim reality with a bill (the second on this topic) that would force publicly traded companies and other large corporations to disclose the possibility that child labour or forced labour may have been used at any stage in the production process — whether by the company itself, or by a contractor or subcontractor.

Called the Modern Slavery Act, or Bill S-211, the legislation is modelled after similar laws in the United Kingdom, Australia and California. Although backed by several Catholic organizations, others are disappointed that the bill fails to propose large fines and even jail time for offenders.

The Archdiocese of Toronto is a supporter. Requiring corporations to produce and publish a report that outlines how, when and where forced or child labour might have been used is significant, said Archdiocese of Toronto chancellor of temporal affairs Jim Milway.

“We do think reputational risks are meaningful,” he said.

Threatening corporate directors and executives with jail time might seem more substantial, but Milway is willing to give the law as written a chance.

“I will celebrate that law. It’s never enough, but we’ll take it,” he said. “It’s a good law. We’re happy we supported the law.”

Pressure from shareholders at corporate annual general meetings played a big role in getting Bill S-211 to first reading in February. The activist investors include the Loretto Sisters, Our Lady’s Missionaries, the Sisters of St. Ann, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle and the Archdiocese of Toronto.

But Canada’s Catholic international development agency wishes the proposed law did more than merely compel corporations to file an annual report on child or forced labour being used in their supply chains. Without substantial fines and the threat of jail time, corporate Canada will not change how it does business, said  Elana Wright, advocacy and research chief at Development and Peace.

She points to a 2015 law passed in the U.K., similar to the proposed Canadian legislation, that “has proven to be ineffective at preventing the forced labour that it was intended to stop.”

“Canada needs a law that ensures that no Canadian company is able to make profit at the expense of people and the planet,” she said.

Milway’s approach to ethical investing is to talk with corporate boards and management, ask questions and guide them towards better behaviour.

“Our tack, our strategy, is that we use our influence to engage managers or executives of these companies to watch their supply chains. It’s in their own interest and it’s in our interest that they do that,” he said.

“What we’re saying as Catholic investors is that we do care how companies are managing their supply chains.”

But the restrained approach has failed in the past, said Wright.

“Experience around the world has shown that neither voluntary measures, nor bills that simply require public reporting, are enough to prevent abuse,” she said. “We are working to ensure that new, stronger legislation based on mandatory due diligence requirements that hold companies liable, is introduced in Parliament as soon as possible.”

The Senate bill is really an update of one introduced in the House of Commons in 2018 by Liberal MP John McKay. That bill got to first reading, but died on the order paper when the 2019 election was called. 

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