Genevieve LeBaron is professor and director at the Simon Fraser School of Public Policy and co-principal investigator at Re: Structure Lab. She is the author of Combatting Modern Slavery: Why Labour Governance is Failing and What We Can Do About It and a member of the U.K. Parliament’s Modern Slavery in the Supply Chain Advisory Group. Priscilla Fisher is a researcher at the Re: Structure Lab and a graduate student in the Simon Fraser School of Public Policy.
We think of Canada as a beacon for human rights. But the sad fact is that the U.S., Britain and France are far ahead of us, having passed laws to hold corporations accountable for modern slavery in supply chains and having implemented import bans on slavery-made goods. Canada is lagging behind.
Bolstered by taxpayer-funded bailouts during the COVID-19 pandemic, corporate profits are soaring around the world, including in the U.S. and in Canada. Yet the International Labour Organization estimates there were more than 40 million victims of modern slavery as recently as 2016, and ample data suggest this number has surged during the pandemic. Despite those massive profits, little meaningful action seems to be taking place to address human rights abuses in those supply chains.
These trends are related. During the pandemic, our research team from Yale, Stanford, Sheffield, and Simon Fraser universities published a series of research briefs pulling together evidence about how companies profit from forced labour. We show that across many different supply chains and parts of the world, corporate business models are built on forced labour. That’s especially true of the energy, mining, retail and finance sectors, in which Canada’s largest companies operate.
While there is growing acknowledgement of the problem, efforts to pass corporate accountability legislation in Canada have dragged on for years. Four private member’s bills related to modern slavery are currently before Parliament, but it’s unclear if any will pass. On June 1, the House of Commons voted unanimously to refer one of these bills, S-211, to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, which will soon bring their recommendations back to the House. Despite supporting the vote, Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan recently said that the government is planning to introduce its own legislation to ensure Canadian companies aren’t using forced or child labour, without further details. It could yet be another addition to our existing patchwork of initiatives, around which enforcement is minimal and little has been done to meaningfully challenge business models dependent on forced labour.
There is a lot of buzz about Canada toughening up, however, and even a few promising signs that we are. For instance, the Supreme Court of Canada decided in 2020 that a human rights lawsuit alleging mining company Nevsun was benefiting from forced labour, torture and other human rights abuses in Eritrea could proceed in British Columbia, even though the abuses took place overseas. A few months ago, the federal government ended a contract worth more than $200-million with a Malaysian medical-gloves manufacturer over concerns about forced labour. But these are disconnected one-offs rather than coherent and meaningful policy shifts that would hold Canadian companies accountable.
Canada needs to strengthen its anti-forced-labour systems, and it needs to do so quickly. We are becoming a dumping ground for goods that have been rejected by the U.S. and other countries. As just one example, shipments of clothing and palm oil that were last year turned away from the U.S. over forced labour concerns were reportedly sold in Canada instead. While changes to the Customs Tariff Act mean that importing goods using forced labour into Canada is now illegal, we have only rejected one shipment – compared to 1,400 in the U.S. – and even that one refusal was later overturned.
We need to get our act together. We can make up for being laggards by implementing the most comprehensive and stringent policy yet, drawing lessons from what is working well in other countries. Our lab wrote policymakers a blueprint to guide their efforts to abolish forced labour and bolster labour standards, with three key recommendations: Pass effective due-diligence legislation; use trade levers, sanctions and import bans to promote labour standards; and spur business model innovation to ensure suppliers aren’t pressed to rely on illegal labour practices, and to ensure workers get their fair share of profits.
In a world where corporate executives are getting astonishingly rich while workers are suffering, underpaid and in some cases experiencing traumatic human rights abuse, this is no time for business as usual.
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