Ethnic Uyghur demonstrators take part in a protest against China in Istanbul Oct. 1, 2021. Bill S-211 wants to open up the flow of information, giving investors and consumers a clear view of how likely it is that vast supply chains spanning the globe and feeding Canadian corporations are incubating human rights violations such as the exploitation of Uyghurs in China. CNS photo/Dilara Senkaya, Reuters

Bill S-211 doesn’t go far enough, says Development and Peace

  • May 26, 2022

Canadians don’t know whether their pension fund is booking profits off nine-year-olds packing boxes 10 hours a day in Guatemala, or off of Uygher workers let out of their re-education camps to pick cotton. When Canadians click on a deal while shopping online, they can’t tell whether child or forced labour was part of the bargain price.

Bill S-211 wants to open up the flow of information, giving investors and consumers a clear view of how likely it is that vast supply chains spanning the globe and feeding Canadian corporations are incubating human rights violations.

Yet despite campaigning on the issue since the 1990s, when Talisman Energy was exposed for encouraging the authoritarian government of Sudan to clear buffer zones around Talisman’s oil wells, Development & Peace-Caritas Canada wants S-211 killed.

“This law is modelled on a UK law that passed in 2015 and has proven to be ineffective at preventing the forced labour that it was intended to stop,” Development & Peace’s Elana Wright told The Catholic Register when the Senate bill was first introduced in 2020. “Laws that oblige companies to only report on human rights abuses are not enough to stop human rights and environmental abuses.”

Two years on, Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne’s bill has been through committee hearings, been revised, passed third reading in the Senate and is now before the House of Commons. Development and Peace still doesn’t like it.

“Development & Peace members want to see Canadian companies from all sectors do their homework to prevent harm, and if the harm occurs, to provide remedy — both of which are not included in Bill S-211,” Development & Peace director of communications, campaigns and fundraising Genevieve Gallant said after S-211 passed first reading in the Commons May 3.

Federal Minister of Labour Seamus O’Reagan has promised to look carefully at the Senate bill and two private members’ bills on the same topic and find a legislative way forward. Whether that means adapting and amending S-211 or introducing new government-backed legislation is unclear.

What’s clear is that Development & Peace wants something completely different from the Senate bill.

The Catholic development agency is one of about 40 organizations in the largely labour-backed Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability.

“To put it simply, it won’t do anything,” said CNCA national co-ordinator Emily Dwyer. “It doesn’t go nearly far enough. What it does do is say that companies of a certain size would need to report every year, but it doesn’t actually require companies to do anything.”

Transparency is not nothing, argues Miville-Dechêne.

“S-211 would help shed light on these practices and discourage them as much as possible, which would promote more honest competition that does not rely on slave labour,” Miville-Dechêne told Senators as her bill faced third reading. “In doing so, we will stop punishing, through our own inaction, the many companies that want to do the right thing.”

In committee hearings Miville-Dechêne’s bill garnered support as a reasonable compromise.

Having faced objections from business interests decrying the expense of writing reports and farmers worried that the law would label family farms as child labour exploiters, the bill represents a reasonable compromise, said Miville-Deschêne.

“This demonstrates the non-partisan consensus that exists regarding the need to combat these appalling human rights violations,” she said.

“Compromise does not mean having a law that will maintain the status quo, that makes it look like you’re doing something but actually won’t change things for people on the ground,” said Dwyer. “We’re nearing 20 years of this debate in Canada and it’s time to do something real.”

Dwyer and Development & Peace want a law that allows people harmed by corporate labour practices or environmental violations abroad to be able to take those companies to court in Canada.

Development & Peace fears a repeat of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise. In the end, the government denied that ombudsperson the power to subpoena documents or force corporate executives to testify.

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