– By Letty Condon

The new Bill S-211, “An Act to enact the Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act and to amend the Customs Tariff”, passed its second reading in the Canadian Senate on the 14th of December, 2021. The Bill is now under review by Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights.  When presenting the Bill to the Committee, Senator Julie Miville Dechêne highlighted the potential human cost of low-priced goods: prices may be low because the goods were made by forced or child labour. Canada itself, she said, “is complicit in these unacceptable practices” through its inaction on the issue of forced and child labour.

Forced labour is an increasingly pressing issue. At the Senate Committee hearings on the 7th of February, 2022,  Geoff Smith, Vice President of The Mining Association of Canada explained that modern slavery is far more pervasive than Canadians think. People are unable to escape forced labour in the face of violence, debt, loss of personal identification and threats of deportation and notably one quarter of those in forced labour are children and three quarters are women and girls. There is evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened working conditions globally and forced more children into work.  At the same time, climate change is exacerbating food-shortages and creating precarious living conditions, increasing the vulnerability of children and women being pushed into forced labour and exploitation. Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard called attention to the reality that the Canadian government has not made progress in addressing forced and child labour. She specified that many children in forced labour are racialised, and how, by eliminating these practices, Bill S-211 may have a decolonising effect in Canada and around the world.

It is thus clear that action, such as enacting legislation, is urgently needed. Proponents of the Bill S-211 hope it will change business practices and increase corporate responsibility for eliminating forced and child labour. The legislation will require Canadian-linked corporate and government entities that produce, sell or distribute goods anywhere in the world, and those who import goods into Canada, to file reports. The entities will describe, in these reports, the steps they have taken to prevent and reduce the risk that forced or child labour is used in their supply chains. If they fail to do so, then entities will face fines of up to $250,000.

Even if Bill S-211 is passed, Canada may still be criticized for being too soft on corporations. Internationally, there are trends towards a more comprehensive approach to human rights violations in corporate supply chains violations, including forced and child labour. Laws passed in European countries, including Germany and Norway, require corporations, who procure or provide goods and/or services, to undertake human rights due diligence. Human rights due diligence requires corporations to report on the steps taken to address human rights violations in their supply chains. These steps include measures the corporation has taken to reduce the risk or eliminate violations as a result of their business activities and the efficacy of such measures.

Looking ahead, the European Union is expected to pass law requiring companies to carry out human rights due diligence. The proposed legislation obliges companies of a certain size, based in the European Union and who trade within the single market, to prevent, reduce and/or eliminate human rights violations and environmental abuses. The proposal also allows for those who suffer as a result of violations to sue in European courts. Aside from the fact that some Canadian companies that trade in Europe will be impacted as a result, Bill S-211 does not do enough to bring Canadian law in line with the broader international shift towards this bolder and more comprehensive outcome-based approach to human rights violations.

Bolder and more comprehensive legislation will incentivise businesses to minimise or eliminate human rights violations in their supply chain. Engaging with local civil society organisations is one method companies may employ to ensure local communities are affected positively by business development and resource extraction. For example, in the Mindanao region of the Philippines, a cooperative scheme allows business projects to match objectives with the development plans of Indigenous persons living in the area. The Mindanao Indigenous People Desk provides data that helps companies make decisions on where to place their investments and helps to ‘strengthen inclusive and conflict-sensitive economic governance’. The information provided by the help desk can help businesses avoid human rights violations, including the use of abusive security forces or the forcible eviction of persons from their communities.

Canadian companies abroad, especially in the extractive industry, continue to face criticism for human rights violations. Just last month, for example, a Canadian mining company in Guatemala was linked to contaminated water sources, expulsions of Indigenous persons from their homes, physical violence and even the death of a local community leader. Only with more rigorous legislation will Canadian companies be compelled to look at their business practices and avoid such atrocities. Bill S-211 and legislative measures to prevent and eliminate human rights violations in supply chains cannot come too soon.

About the author: Letty Condon is a final-year student at the Peter A. Allard School of Law and is working with the IJHR Clinic as part of the All-Party Parliamentary Group to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking team.