Canada has little to show for its promises to combat forced labour in China, critics say.
In 2021, members of Parliament were among the first in the West to officially condemn Beijing’s repression of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities from China’s Xinjiang province – abuses that include forced labour.
As The Globe and Mail first reported in May, the Chinese government was sufficiently incensed about this motion declaring China’s conduct tantamount to genocide that Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong, a sponsor of the measure, was later targeted by Chinese diplomats in a foreign interference effort.
Six weeks before this Uyghur vote, in January, 2021, the Canadian government promised a raft of measures “to address human-rights abuses in Xinjiang,” including “the prohibition of imports of goods produced wholly or in part by forced labour.”
To this date, however, more than 2½ years later, Canada has failed to intercept any imports of goods made with forced labour – from any country. Jacqueline Roby, a spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency, said it takes “significant research and analysis and supporting information” to determine whether imports have been made with coerced labour. She said Border Services is working closely with the Employment and Social Development Canada on this.
In 2021, Ottawa also announced Canadian companies sourcing products directly or indirectly with Xinjiang, or from companies relying on Uyghur labour, must sign a “Xinjiang Integrity Declaration” if they rely on Ottawa’s Trade Commissioner Service for support.
This declaration acknowledges, among other things, that the company is “aware of the human-rights situation in Xinjiang and affirms they are not “knowingly sourcing products or services from a supplier implicated in forced labour or other human-rights violations and committing to conduct due diligence on their suppliers in China to ensure there are no such linkages.”
To date, according to Global Affairs spokesperson Charlotte MacLeod, eight companies have signed the declaration. She declined, however, to say whether eight companies represent the entirety of Canadian companies sourcing directly or indirectly from Xinjiang. Ms. MacLeod declined to name the companies that had signed, citing corporate confidentiality, and noted that firms only need to sign the declaration if they require trade support from the Canadian government.
Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said much of Canada’s promises on forced labour in Xinjiang has proven to be lip service. “Overall, our doors are being kept wide open for forced labour imports without any intervention,” Mr. Tohti said, adding he fears this country is also becoming a “dumping ground” for slave labour products that are blocked from entering the United States, where enforcement is much stronger.
Ottawa amended the Customs Tariff Act on July 1, 2020, to prohibit forced-labour imports in keeping with a pledge made under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the trade deal that replaced the North American free-trade agreement.
Linden Dales, a Toronto-based lawyer with Conlin Bedard, said to his knowledge Canada has done nothing to prevent goods made with coerced labour from entering this country. “Other than a single interception reported in 2021, which was subsequently released, it appears that the government is simply not enforcing this law.”
He said the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project has provided evidence to Border Services and the employment department regarding specific incoming shipments of goods made with forced labour, including as recently as July 20, 2023. “The evidence is there, the action is not.”
Mr. Tohti said one exception to the lack of action is an early July decision by the Canadian Ombudsman for Responsible Enterprise – a watchdog created by the federal government to probe corporate wrongdoing abroad – to open an investigation into whether Nike Canada is selling products made with Uyghur forced labour in China.
Another promise from Ottawa that has yet to bear fruit is a motion in Parliament this year where MPs voted unanimously to urge the Canadian government to accept 10,000 Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China. Those backing the motion included members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet, including Mr. Trudeau himself.
Former immigration minister Sean Fraser, among those in the Commons who supported Motion M-62, did not expressly commit to bringing in 10,000 Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims over two years, as the parliamentary measure stipulated. The motion is non-binding on the government. But, in a statement after the 322-0 vote in favour of M-62, Mr. Fraser said he is “committed to working with members of all parties to advance the measures outlined in the motion adopted by the House of Commons.”
The motion called on the government to table a plan for this within 100 sitting days of the House of Commons, which Mr. Tohti said means the deadline is not until November this year. Mr. Fraser left the immigration post in a recent cabinet shuffle but the immigration ministry said it is still working on the effort.
Mary Rose Sabater, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said Ottawa “is in the process of developing its implementation plan in response” to the 10,000 refugee motion. She said Ottawa “will have limited capacity to speak publicly about any work it undertakes on this motion to protect all those involved.”
A further effort to combat forced labour in China and elsewhere in the world is S-211, a bill that received royal assent in early May. It is expected to come into force in 2024 and will require Canadian companies and government bodies to report publicly on forced labour in their supply chain.
Liberal MP John McKay, one of the sponsors of S-211, noted Ottawa has less than five months to set up government operations to handle the reporting requirements of S-211 including a website, regulations, forms and personnel to handle queries and receive reports.
“Notwithstanding some considerable pushing by me I have yet to see evidence that it is moving” forward to meet the Jan. 1, 2024 deadline, he said.
Mr. McKay said he’s “starting to be” concerned about whether Ottawa will be ready in time.