OPINION: Now is the time for the EU to ban forced labour imports

Friday, 17 September 2021 16:30 GMT

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech during a debate on "The State of the European Union" at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, September 15, 2021. REUTERS/Yves Herman/Pool

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The EU should amend the public procurement directive for procurers to consider social responsibility and human rights issues in purchasing decisions.

* Heidi Hautala MEP is Vice President of the European Parliament and a Member of its Legal Affairs Committee, International Trade Committee and Subcommittee on Human Rights @heidihautala

* Andy Hall is an independent migrant worker rights specialist focusing especially on forced labour @atomicalandy

* Anna Cavazzini MEP is Chair of the European Parliament’s Internal Market Committee and a Member of its International Trade Committee @anna_cavazzini

Products tainted with forced labour continue to be sold in our supermarkets, purchased by our hospitals and pervade all parts of our life in Europe.

In her State of the Union speech on Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made a clear commitment that the European Union will now act to address this scourge of modern slavery.

US, Canadian and Australian governments have already shown global leadership by legislating to enable strong and innovative enforcement action against suppliers, intermediary and buyer companies across the world that are complicit in forced labour and modern slavery practices.

The EU must urgently take robust action to ensure it follows suit with this global trend. If not, the EU risks becoming a dumping ground for forced labour products. 

The US made legislative amendments in 2016 to prevent forced labour imports. Since then, its Customs and Border Protection Department’s (CBP) list of goods and companies across the world, subject to trade enforcement actions over forced labour allegations has grown considerably.

By restricting the import of suspected forced labour goods, CBP has recently blocked import of gloves and palm oil from Malaysia; fish from the Pacific; gold from Congo; tobacco from Malawi; and silica, tomatoes, hair and cotton products from Xinjiang, China.

Following trade enforcement action in 2020 against the world’s leading rubber gloves producer Top Glove, located in Malaysia, a sum in excess of $32 million has now been paid as remediation to its migrant workers for their grievances.

A sector-wide reform of the social compliance practices in Malaysia’s rubber sector has started to take place, alongside remediation exceeding $100 million, as companies have rushed to prevent themselves from also being sanctioned.

The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) has yet to utilise similar trade enforcement powers available to it since 2020. Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) recently said it was “actively researching… forced labour allegations in different countries and sectors, including palm oil and glove manufacturing in Malaysia.” Evidence suggests that CBSA and ESDC are committed to action as both are currently refining standards to ensure certainty and predictability.

More recently, Australia’s Senate passed draft legislation to ban the importation of goods made with forced labour from entering into Australia. The proposed measures show an increasing trend towards legislative action on forced labour globally.

Forced labour trade enforcement action should be a major issue for the EU, the world’s largest trade block. Imports of goods tainted by forced labour into the EU continue to be unhindered across the world.

EU’s only tangible measure to date has been the use of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing regulation to indirectly address forced labour in its supply chains. The EU’s regulations on conflict minerals and timber show that positive change can become possible if the EU chooses to act to impose conditions on the import of certain goods into the EU customs union.

There are three ways in which the EU should now urgently signal commitment to combatting forced labour globally:

  • The EU commission is soon expected to give a legislative proposal making it mandatory for companies to prevent and address human rights violations (including forced labour and modern slavery) and environmental impacts in their operations and value chains.

It is key that this proposal will be accompanied with complementary trade enforcement tools imposed on those undertakings. The EU has the chance to take up lessons learned from the US, Canada and Australia designing a European system of forced labour trade enforcement measures, as von der Leyen committed to do yesterday, so as to accompany a Human Rights and Environmental Due Diligence law.

  • An import ban on forced labour products coming into the EU also requires access to EU Member States’ customs information. Ensuring transparency of EU customs information is a prerequisite for monitoring movement of goods and more effectively preventing forced labour.
  • Under public procurement, buying of works, goods or services by public bodies accounts for over 14% of EU GDP or 2.6 trillion dollars. Multiple billions could be stirred towards sustainable suppliers by incentivising companies to compete for the most sustainable supply chains. 

The EU should amend the public procurement directive making it mandatory, and subject to penalties for non-compliance, for procurers to consider social responsibility and human rights issues like forced labour in purchasing decisions. 

The EU should also launch pilot projects for sharing best practices among public procurers in ensuring prevention of forced labour. Highlighting leaders in responsible procurement, such as the Swedish local authorities, has the power to stimulate action among other member states.

Today, the EU is lagging far behind global developments in taking strong enforcement action against abusive suppliers and buying companies complicit in forced labour.

Now is the moment for the EU to take a decisive step forward to address this issue and ensure a cleaning of the European market of forced labour products. EU President von der Leyen and the European Commission should act urgently on the State of the Union speech commitment on this issue.

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