Time for Canada to step up in the fight against forced labour

The pandemic has turned our lives upside down. It has taken away our loved ones. It has changed our habits and opened our eyes to certain realities. One of those realities is a global scourge on humanity: forced labour and child labour, which supply a slew of cheap products to consumers in wealthy countries like ours.

These appalling human rights violations are nothing new – at least 90 million children and adults around the world are affected. But the sudden focus on supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic has thrust these violations back into the spotlight.

The rush to buy protective equipment left the world’s most vulnerable people at increased risk of exploitation. In October, the United States seized an incoming shipment of medical gloves from a Malaysian company facing allegations of forced labour – the fourth Malaysian company to be sanctioned in 15 months. Canada has bought and used millions of gloves from two of these embattled suppliers, Top Glove and Supermax, despite having had a law in place at the border for over a year prohibiting such shipments from entering the country.

Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne.

There is nothing unusual about this. Forced labour and child labour (sometimes referred to as modern slavery) have been creeping into our everyday consumption for some time now. A CBC investigation recently revealed the origins of Del Monte, Nestlé, Unilever and La Doria tomato products found on the shelves in our supermarkets, including Loblaws and Walmart. The tomatoes were processed by intermediaries but they came from the Xinjiang region of China and may have been produced by members of the Uyghur minority forced to work in fields and factories. It’s impossible to tell from the label.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. World Vision estimates that 10% of Canadian food imports may be linked to child labour, particularly in Mexico.

The highest-risk products include coffee, cocoa, seafood, palm oil and sugarcane.

Sadly, Canada has chosen to watch from the sidelines while other countries – including the United Kingdom, France and Germany – have passed legislation requiring their companies to investigate and report on the risk of forced labour in their supply chains.

Since 2018, member of Parliament John McKay and I have tried three times to pass a bill outlawing modern slavery. An improved version of this bill will be introduced when the Senate resumes sitting. It would require companies to be transparent about their efforts to address the risk of forced labour and child labour in their supply chains.

For the first time, both the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party pledged to combat forced labour in their most recent election platforms. The pressure is building – and so much the better.

It gives us hope that our fourth attempt to pass this legislation will succeed.

This bill will not eliminate forced labour or child labour, which are complex problems tied to poverty, insecurity and gender inequality. But it’s a vital first step in requiring major corporations to take responsibility. Some have already stepped up, but others are dragging their feet, even though this is what consumers want.

We also need to show consistency; our public policy should live up to the speeches and statements we make on the international stage.

Senator Julie Miville-Dechêne represents the Inkerman division of Quebec.

This article appeared in the November 11, 2021 edition of La Presse (in French only).