Skip to main content

A worker unloads cotton picked from Xinjiang at a railway station in Jiujiang, in China's central Jiangxi province, on March 26, 2021.STR/AFP/Getty Images

Canada is lagging the United States in intercepting imports made with forced labour, as Ottawa struggles to implement a commitment to do so in the renegotiated NAFTA deal.

In the last 21 months, Canada’s border guards have only seized one shipment suspected of being manufactured under coercive conditions. Intercepted in Quebec, the October shipment was of women’s and children’s clothing from China. Trade experts say Canada does not appear to be prioritizing its agreement to bar such shipments.

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 (USMCA), the trade deal that replaced the North American free-trade agreement.

In comparison to Canada’s single seizure, U.S. border guards have intercepted more than 1,300 shipments from China that are believed to have been made with coerced labour over the same period, according to data provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The seizure is estimated to amount to a combined value of US$209-million.

Canadian watchdog asked to probe allegations that imports made with forced labour in China

Canada seizes goods made with forced labour from China; MPs urge more action for Uyghurs

Further, in fiscal year 2021 alone – from Oct. 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021 – the United States intercepted more than 1,400 shipments of goods made with forced labour from a variety of countries, according to the CBP.

Trade experts say stark difference in interceptions between Canada and the U.S. cannot be accounted for merely by the far larger volume of trade between the United States and other countries such as China. They say Canada’s slim record is an indication that Ottawa is not doing as much as it could to crack down on forced labour imports because of a lack of investment in enforcement and intelligence-gathering – despite a commitment from the federal government as recently as January, 2021, to get serious on the matter.

The CBP’s seizure of forced-labour goods since USMCA took effect includes 811 shipments of cotton and tomato products from China’s troubled Xinjiang region as well as 511 shipments of products made by Hoshine Silicon Industry Co. Ltd., a company located in Xinjiang that produces a key material for solar panels.

China’s northwestern Xinjiang region produces a fifth of the world’s cotton and close to half of the global supply of the silicon material used to make solar panels.

Rights groups and media reports say the Chinese government has committed grave human-rights violations against the region’s largely Muslim Uyghur population, as well as other minorities. Forced labour and forced relocation to work in other provinces, China’s critics say, is the latest stage in a government-directed effort to exert control in Xinjiang, which Beijing has described as being infected with extremism.

Other products seized by U.S. border guards include 30 shipments from state-owned Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, two shipments of produced by Chinese garment maker Hero Vast Group and two shipments of cotton product from Xinjiang Junggar Cotton and Linen Co.

Federal Court rejects bid to ban imports from China’s Xinjiang region over labour concerns

Michael Nesbitt, a University of Calgary law professor who previously worked in the federal government’s sanctions division, said Canada does not appear to be making the effort needed to identify and detain imports of goods made with forced labour.

He said unless Canada devotes more effort and resources to intelligence-gathering, investigation and enforcement, “it will not be surprising to see Canada’s dismal record of enforcement of sanctions regimes, the forced labour and prison labour ban, and other such restrictions, continue.”

Prof. Nesbitt said Canada appears to put the emphasis on warning importers instead: “Part of the Canadian strategy has been to limit trade in forced labour in this way before it ever becomes a problem at the border, just as Canada does with its sanctions and various other import regimes.”

However he said Canada puts a heavy burden on the private sector to determine for themselves if their shipments are made with forced labour “while seemingly doing little to undermine or prosecute the bad actors that take active steps to avoid detection.”

Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said “Canada is still in the early stages of implementing the forced-labour prohibition,” whereas the United States has had a law forbidding such imports since 1930.

She said several government departments are working on “effective operationalization of the ban” and talking to foreign partners.

Plus, Ms. Purdy said, last year Americans enshrined in law a reverse-onus rule that puts the responsibility on those shipping goods from Xinjiang to prove these items are free of coerced labour. That means the U.S. government officially regards all goods “produced in whole or in part” in Xinjiang as produced with forced labour and “therefore prohibited from importation.”

Meanwhile, in Canada, CBSA officers require evidence that imports are tainted by slave or prison labour and do not have the authority to deem goods as prohibited. That means they are required to treat shipments “on a case-by-case basis, based on the available information at the time of entry.”

Toronto-based international trade lawyer Cyndee Todgham Cherniak said there is not a large group within the CBSA to actively determine which companies might be engaged in forced labour, and that Canada has not dedicated resources to the RCMP or the CBSA for these matters.

“It doesn’t seem to be a priority because they are not allocating the resources required so there [would be] people doing the work to be able to spot these transactions,” she said.

She said Canada should ask allies such as the United States with better-funded enforcement to share their intelligence.

“We can borrow their information and take steps to ensure we are acting consistently if we agree with the information they have prepared.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.