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A precision seeder machine sows seeds near workers on a cotton field of Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, in Alar, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, March 26, 2021.

CHINA DAILY/Reuters

Canada’s border guards have not seized any imports made with forced labour since the federal government changed customs legislation nearly nine months ago to prohibit such goods from entering the country.

Ottawa amended the Customs Tariff Act on July 1 to bar imports of goods made with coerced labour. But The Globe and Mail reported this week that Canadians can purchase bath towels, quilts and clothes through online retailers such as Amazon and eBay that are advertised as made with cotton from China’s Xinjiang region. Human-rights activists and academics say the crop should be assumed to be the product of forced labour.

Critics say the ease with which consumers can purchase Xinjiang cotton products calls into question the commitment countries such as Canada have made to stop imports of goods made with forced labour.

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A spokeswoman for Canada Border Services Agency said this week that there have been no seizures of products since mid-2020 when the forced-labour prohibition was introduced.

“To date, the CBSA has not applied the tariff prohibition against goods produced by forced labour,” Rebecca Purdy, acting manager of media relations, said in an e-mailed statement. “This would apply to any seizures and/or cancelled shipments due to the goods being produced by forced labour.”

Canadians can buy Xinjiang cotton products despite Ottawa’s vow to stop forced labour imports

Trudeau defends his effort to ban Chinese goods made with forced labour

The United States has by comparison been far more active in stopping shipments suspected of forced labour. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency’s website shows in the last two months of 2020 it detained 90 shipments on suspicion of containing products made with coerced labour.

Last fall in one publicized seizure, it detained 32 cartons of women’s leather gloves from Xinjiang. U.S. border guards said a month-long investigation of the manufacturing sites found “forced labour indicators,” including “restriction of movement, isolation, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages, and abusive working and living conditions.”

Canada moved to bar forced-labour goods in keeping with a commitment made under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade. The Trudeau government cited this ban in January when it announced a package of measures to ban forced-labour imports originating from China.

Toronto lawyer John Boscariol, head of McCarthy Tétrault’s trade and investment group, said it’s not clear this matter is a priority for Canada.

“Based on what we’re seeing in terms of what’s been released by Canada Border Services Agency and other arms of the government in terms of direction or guidance on how to comply with these measures, it does not look like the government is taking it seriously,” he said. “Importers and retailers want to comply and they are thirsty for direction and guidance in that regard.”

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Human-rights activists and United Nations rights experts have accused China of using mass detainment, torture, forced labour and sterilizations on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. Beijing denies this and says its actions in the region are necessary to counter extremism.

The CBSA’s Ms. Purdy said it’s challenging for Canada to identify imports made with coerced labour.

“Unlike most other inadmissible products, there is no visual clue for a border services officer to understand the labour standards by which a particular import was produced,” she said. “It takes research, co-ordination and diligence amongst all stakeholders to establish reliable and actionable sources of information to stamp out this practice.”

Ms. Purdy said the agency believes it’s nevertheless well-positioned to enforce the rules laid down last July, noting the Department of Employment and Social Development is responsible for monitoring and analysis “to establish the likelihood that a specific shipment contains goods produced with forced labour.”

She said the agency can then use this information to identify and intercept shipments flagged as suspected to have been made by coercive labour. And, Ms. Purdy added, CBSA is working with U.S. Customs to better understand their import controls program and “to explore setting up information exchange protocols so that we can co-ordinate our approach.”

The agency said the employment department is still investigating. “Comprehensive case reports that include analysis based on the best information/evidence available are currently in development. Establishing that goods have been produced by forced labour requires significant research, analysis and supporting information,” CBSA spokesman Mark Stuart said.

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Earlier this month, Canada joined allies including the U.S., Britain and the European Union in imposing sanctions on Chinese officials overseeing Beijing’s brutal treatment of Muslim minorities, including the Uyghurs. And in January, citing forced labour in Xinjiang, Ottawa said it was taking measures to address the risk of goods made using such labour from any country from entering Canada.

Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Rights Project, said action to stop the import of goods made with forced labour is long overdue, noting evidence about coerced employment in Xinjiang “has been on the international radar screen for two years.”

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