A child weeps during a police raid on an embroidery workshop in Bombay, India. While Canada has passed a new law requiring Canadian companies to report on possible forced labour in supply chains, Carl Hetu of Development and Peace-Caritas Canada hesitates to call it a victory “because we don’t go to the root cause.” CNS photo/Reuters

Forced labour law doesn’t go far enough

  • May 20, 2023

A new law requiring Canadian companies to report on possible forced labour in their supply chains is not good enough for Development and Peace-Caritas Canada, despite promises from federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan to follow up with a second law banning imports made with child and forced labour.

“At the end of the day, whenever you ban products, it doesn’t stop the slavery. It doesn’t stop the problematic,” said Development and Peace executive director Carl Hetu.

Because Canada represents such a small slice of the market for many products, Hetu foresees that companies will continue to use forced labour in products and raw materials destined for other markets.

Bill S-211 originated two years ago in the Senate, eventually gained government backing in the House of Commons and received royal assent May 11 as the Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act. Designed in large part to address sweatshop conditions in production of imported textiles, clothing and other manufactured goods, the act requires publicly listed companies to audit their supply chains and publicly report the risks of forced and child labour.

Development and Peace-Caritas Canada has objected that merely reporting possible labour violations falls short of forcing companies to eliminate it from the products they bring into Canada. The new law relies on consumers and investors to demand change of companies, but contains no penalties or other requirements that companies do anything about forced labour in their supply chains.

When it comes to mining, where Canadian companies have interests across the globe, the new legislation will be particularly meaningless, said Hetu.

“They (mining companies) don’t respect environmental rights, they don’t respect local communities, farming communities, peasant communities or aboriginal communities that make their living out of farming, fishing, traditional living,” he said. “Suddenly people are starting to get sick. They don’t know why. Then they discover this thing (mining) is going on. They go to see their government and they expose what’s going on and end up in jails. Some are killed, harassed. And the Canadian government says nothing.”

Mining researcher and Congolese Jesuit Fr. Jacques Nzumbu concedes that S-211 is a “first step,” but “the first step is not what I was waiting for.”

Nzumbu doubts Canadian mining companies will commission truly independent or credible reports on their supply chains.

“They don’t go on the ground in Congo,” he said.

Just before S-211 passed, O’Regan told a number of media outlets a second bill is in the works that by 2024 will eliminate forced labour from Canadian supply chains.

“The transparency measures in Bill S-211, coupled with the due diligence measures in coming government legislation, will ensure that Canada has the most effective legislation possible that not only identifies these goods, but has the teeth to act on them,” O’Regan’s press secretary Hartley Witten said in an email to The Register.

O’Regan’s mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tasks the minister with eradicating forced labour from Canadian supply chains.

“He remains committed to meeting this mandate letter commitment, and will do so by the end of 2024,” Witten said.

Importation of goods made with forced or child labour is already illegal under the Customs Act of 2020. The Canada Border Services Agency is responsible for enforcing Customs Tariff item no. 9897.00.00. In the only case the CBSA has acted on so far, a shipment of clothing made in China, suspected of being manufactured by forced Uyghur labour, was intercepted in Quebec in 2021. The importing company disputed the CBSA finding and eventually had the goods released.

“The CBSA works closely with Employment and Social Development Canada to identify goods coming into Canada that are suspected to have been produced by forced labour,” CBSA spokesperson Jacqueline Roby said in an email. “Specifically, ESDC conducts research and analysis of specific complaints that forced labour may exist in Canadian supply chains. The CBSA uses ESDC research and analysis of specific complaints or issues regarding forced labour to set verification priorities and enforcement targets.”

With companies reporting on themselves, ESDC should have more information to work with, but when it comes to mining Nzumbu wants to see truly independent, non-governmental, civil society organizations contributing to the supply chain reports.

“Don’t only accept what is published in Canada,” he said. “How can we build the profile of this company?”

After two years of lobbying government on the shortcomings of S-211, Hetu hesitates to call O’Regan’s promise of follow-up legislation a win for Development and Peace-Caritas Canada.

“I don’t think it’s a victory because we don’t go to the root cause,” he said.

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