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Minister of Labour Seamus O'Regan rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on March 30.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal Labour Minister is promising to introduce additional legislation next year to eradicate imports made with forced labour.

Seamus O’Regan, in an interview, said this will build on the efforts of a Senate bill, S-211, that is expected to become law and will require Canadian companies and government bodies to report publicly on forced labour in their supply chains. The governing Liberals have thrown their support behind this bill, introduced in the Senate by Julie Miville-Dechêne and in the Commons by Liberal MP John McKay.

Mr. O’Regan said follow-up legislation will oblige companies to take steps to eradicate forced labour from their supply chains after it’s discovered. He said the exact measures in this upcoming bill are still to be determined.

“S-211 means you have to look,” he said of the Senate bill’s obligations for companies.

“Where I think government legislation will come in is, ‘Okay, you’ve looked now. What are you doing about it?’” the minister said. “But the idea is that the onus is on you to make sure that you do something.”

Debate on S-211, which has already passed the Senate, wrapped up in the Commons on Wednesday. A final third-reading vote is expected next week.

Canada agreed to a ban on forced-labour imports in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which took effect on July 1, 2020.

Canada has had a poor record of intercepting goods made with forced labour. It has not publicly reported any interceptions except for one case in October, 2021, in which the Canada Border Services Agency seized a shipment of women’s and children’s clothing from China after it arrived in Quebec. But the goods were ultimately allowed into Canada because the importing company convinced the federal government the clothing was not a product of forced labour.

Mr. O’Regan said the government has no estimate of the value of imports into Canada made with slave labour. However, the Global Slavery Index, produced by the Australian philanthropic Minderoo Foundation’s Walk Free initiative, estimated in a 2018 report that more than $18.5-billion worth of goods imported annually into Canada is at risk of being made with forced labour at some point in the supply chain, including computers, smartphones, clothing, gold, seafood and sugar cane.

He said the U.S. government expects all signatories to USMCA to take action on coerced labour.

“They want us to do something for forced labour, both us and the Mexicans,” Mr. O’Regan said. “But having said that, we wanted to do something on it anyway.”

The minister said there is cross-party interest in more action against coerced labour imports.

“We’re committed to stopping forced labour in our supply chains.”

The government’s follow-up legislation is aimed at helping groups such as Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province, many of whom are victims of forced labour, according to an impact assessment completed recently for the 2023 budget.

EU aims to ban products, imports made with forced labour: document

A separate report for the Department of Global Affairs last year said that, in Xinjiang, Beijing “is using otherwise legitimate programs for retraining and relocation of unemployed workers as instruments of a broader campaign of oppression, exploitation and indoctrination of the Uyghur Muslim population into Han Chinese culture.”

The report for Global Affairs said “nonvoluntary participation in retraining and relocation programs provides forced labour to the bottom of the supply chains for textiles and apparel, food products, and semi-conductor-based products, including solar panels.”

It said Canada imported more than $5-billion in apparel products from China in 2020, much of it including cotton, and an estimated 85 per cent of Chinese cotton originates in Xinjiang. Experts interviewed for this report said “products made wholly or in part from cotton represent perhaps the largest risk of supply chain forced labour to Canadian firms.”

The United States has enacted a “reverse onus” ban, which means certain categories of goods from China’s Xinjiang province – such as cotton or tomatoes – are banned unless importers can prove they are not tainted by forced labour.

International trade lawyers said that as a general rule, Canada’s obligations under the World Trade Organization would prevent it from restricting imports from a particular region of China.

Mr. O’Regan said he couldn’t say whether he would entertain attempting a “reverse-onus” ban on goods from a particular region, adding he didn’t want to prejudice consultations on future government action.

He didn’t rule out working closer with the United States on combatting forced labour including sharing information and collaborating on interceptions. The United States has had a law forbidding forced-labour imports since 1930.

“Any time that we can streamline things with the Americans – you’re not giving up any sovereignty or autonomy – so any time you can streamline this sort of stuff, I think it’s a good thing,” Mr. O’Regan said.

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