Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), Sheri Meyerhoffer, at a news conference in Ottawa on July 11.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

A United Nations expert has joined a chorus of critics who are faulting the federal government for not empowering its new watchdog for international corporate wrongdoing with broader investigative powers.

Tomoya Obokata, UN special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, said this week Canada should do more to address forced labour, including strengthening laws that govern Canadian companies’ activities abroad.

He urged the Liberal government to give the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) – an office that looks into international human-rights abuse allegations linked to Canadian companies – the power to compel them to provide evidence. He also called on Ottawa to make the CORE fully independent from government.

“I urge the government to bring forward legislation requiring Canadian companies to implement mandatory human-rights due diligence, and expand the independence, powers and mandate of the CORE,” he said, at the conclusion of a 14-day visit to Canada.

Many human-rights advocacy groups have said the CORE’s lack of powers to investigate companies hinders its effectiveness. The federal government had promised to grant the office robust powers to investigate when it first announced the creation of the CORE in 2018. It never fulfilled that promise.

It’s not the only area in which the government reneged on pledges about how the CORE was supposed to operate. The watchdog was to start by focusing on three sectors: mining, oil and the garment industries, and expand to other sectors within a year. This expansion never took place. The UN’s Mr. Obokata urged the government to change that.

“Other sectors where labour exploitation is rife, like agriculture, fishery, manufacturing and construction, should be included in CORE’s mandate.”

The Globe and Mail reached out to Global Affairs and to CORE for comment on his remarks. Global Affairs did not respond by deadline. In an e-mailed response, CORE ombudsperson Sheri Meyerhoffer said she has publicly advocated for the ability to compel witnesses and documents, saying it would strengthen the capacity to influence companies and provide access to remedies. The office “will continue to participate in any discussions to add these powers to the CORE’s toolbox,” she said.

The CORE, which operates under Global Affairs, opened in 2019. In its four-plus years of operating, it has yet to complete an investigation, The Globe has reported. This summer it published its first set of initial assessment reports, related to allegations of Canadian companies using forced Uyghur labour in China in their supply chains and operations. CORE has initiated investigations into six of these cases. In its initial reports, CORE said that some companies did not respond to its questions or did not provide detailed answers.

The UN has urged Canada to enhance CORE’s powers before. In March, José Francisco Calí Tzay, special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, said Canada “does not comprehensively regulate the activities of Canadian companies operating transnationally,” and that the government should grant the CORE full investigatory powers and ensure it is fully independent.

Mr. Obokata also said Canada should strengthen measures on human-rights due diligence in the operations of Canadian companies, or actions companies can take to identify and mitigate human rights risks. In May, the federal government introduced a new bill that requires large companies to report on measures to address child or forced labour in their supply chains, but Mr. Obokata said it relies too much on self reporting by companies and lacks a monitoring mechanism.

“There is a risk of this becoming a box-ticking exercise where companies simply submit the same statement every year, as has been reported in other jurisdictions.”

The special rapporteur’s comments “demonstrate that Canada can’t continue to rely on voluntary measures to fulfill its international human-rights obligations with respect to corporate abuse,” said Emily Dwyer, policy director for the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability.

In an investigation published earlier this year, The Globe counted more than 50 reported instances of Canadian companies allegedly mistreating people, directly or indirectly, in at least 30 countries. The reported abuses include killings of Indigenous community members, security forces opening fire on protesters and contamination of local water sources.

The special rapporteur visits countries around the world and will issue a more detailed report on Canada in September, 2024.

The UN expert also admonished Canada for its treatment of migrant workers and aspects of the federal Temporary Foreign Worker program.

He said that though these workers make crucial contributions to the Canadian economy and possess valuable skills, “paths for long-term or permanent residency is extremely limited or non-existent for most workers working in agriculture and other lowskills sectors,” an approach he said is discriminatory.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe