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Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, seen here in a April 28, 2022 file photo, said the Liberals plan on introducing several measures to beef up the legislation in committee.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have thrown their support behind a Senate bill requiring government and businesses to annually report on steps they have taken to identify forced labour in their supply chains.

This means Bill S-211 stands a good chance of becoming law once it finishes moving through the House of Commons. The legislation, which has already passed the Senate, also passed second reading in the Commons by a vote of 327-0 on Wednesday. It now heads to committee for further study.

Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan said the Liberals plan on introducing several measures to beef up the legislation in committee.

“We need to substantively tackle forced labour in our supply chains. Bill S-211 is an important first step,” he said via Twitter.

“We voted to send this bill to committee. There, we’ll look at amendments to strengthen it,” the minister said. He did not elaborate on what improvements the Liberals had in mind.

“Ultimately, we want to pass legislation that will be effective against forced labour.”

Canada has repeatedly been faulted for failing to do anything to stop imports of goods made with forced labour despite a commitment it made in the renegotiated NAFTA deal to do so.

As The Globe reported last week, Canada has yet to stop a single such import since mid-2020 when Ottawa amended the Customs Tariff Act 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.

The single shipment of goods impounded by Canadian authorities since then was later released after the importer successfully challenged the seizure.

By comparison, in the fiscal 2021 year alone, the United States intercepted more than 1,400 shipments of goods made with forced labour from a variety of countries, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The difference in the Canadian and U.S. records on this, critics say, cannot be accounted for solely by the far larger volume of imports into the United States.

The Global Slavery Index, produced by an Australian philanthropic foundation, estimated in a 2018 report that more than $18.5-billion worth of goods imported into Canada are at risk of being made with forced labour at some point in their supply chains, including computers, smartphones, clothing as well as gold, seafood and sugarcane.

Bill S-211, Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act, would require government institutions and businesses to submit annual reports to Ottawa outlining any steps taken during the previous fiscal year to prevent and reduce the risk that forced labour or child labour are being used at any step in their supply chains.

Critics say the bill falls short because it does not oblige government or businesses to take steps to rid their supply chains of coerced labour – but only report on it.

“There is no requirement to take any steps. There is no certification scheme, nor attestation that the supply chains are free of forced labour. There is only a requirement to report annually on if you took any steps, and your assessment of how effective they are. There is actually no requirement to report if you identify forced labour,” said Emily Dwyer, policy director at the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability.

She said Canada should strive for legislation that goes further and includes an obligation to prevent forced labour from taking place. She pointed to a private members’ bill by NDP MP Peter Julian that would require companies to “identify, prevent and mitigate human-rights abuses and provides for liability when companies cause harm in their global operations.”

S-211 was sponsored in the Red Chamber by Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne and is being sponsored in the House by Liberal MP John McKay.

Mr. McKay defended the legislation despite its shortcomings, saying companies could end up being embarrassed into taking action because the reporting will end up “naming and shaming” businesses or government departments taking no measures.

“I wouldn’t want to be the CEO filing a return that just answers ‘nil’ to each question,” he said.

He said Canada lags behind peer countries in the requirements placed on business and government to report whether they have taken action to weed out slave labour from their supply chains.

Lawyer John Boscariol, head of McCarthy Tétrault’s trade and investment group, said in his opinion the legislation is “still an important and positive step” despite the fact companies won’t be required to scrutinize their supply chains.

“There is an indirect impact here that will encourage companies to actually have due diligence measures in place and that overall should discourage the use of forced labour and child labour in supply chains.”

The legislation would take effect as early as January, 2023, if it receives royal assent this year.

Mr. McKay said any amendments would mean S-211 would have to go back to the Senate to be ratified.

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