Why is Canada lagging on modern slavery?

by Josh Scheinert | Borden Ladner Gervais
Friday, 3 August 2018 09:18 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: People walk in a fog on Bay Street, in the financial district in Toronto, February 18, 2009. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

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

Canada is missing an opportunity to use its economic power to play a role freeing millions from 21st century slavery

Many goods making their way to Canada are produced in conditions of modern slavery. In this sense, Canada is no different from economies around the world. What differentiates us from some of our closest allies and trading partners is the Canadian government’s inaction in the face of this fact. The result is that as economies respond to the prevalence of modern slavery, Canada trails behind other states combatting modern slavery, while Canadian businesses lack governmental guidance and direction that could assist them when competing globally.

According to the recently-released 2018 Global Slavery Index, 24.9 million people are working in conditions of modern slavery. The Index found that Canada annually imports US $15 billion worth of goods at-risk of being produced through modern slavery, the sixth highest globally. Despite this, Canada is labeled as “not taking action” when it comes to “sourcing goods & services at risk of being produced by forced labour”.

The top five at-risk goods Canada imports are computers and mobile phones; apparel and accessories; gold; fish; and sugarcane.

Modern slavery in these industries is not a surprise. Take the fishing industry. An Associated Press investigation found instances of workers being kept in cages on Indonesian islands. The fish and seafood they caught was traced to supermarkets around the world. In Peru, a source country for Canadian gold imports, illegal mines keep workers in debt-bondage situations, making it prohibitively costly for workers wishing to leave.

These examples do not mean all at-risk goods are produced in conditions of modern slavery, but some could be. To try and keep at-risk goods out, our G20 peers have implemented laws and regulations guarding against their importation or use in global supply chains. These mechanisms exist in trade laws, procurement rules, and laws requiring companies to publicly report on their efforts to guard against modern slavery.

Take for example, the United States. The US trade law makes it illegal to import products made through forced labour. US Customs and Border Protection maintains a list of these banned products identified by source country and specific producers. Currently, 42 products are listed. Canada does not have a similar list, depriving importers and other businesses of supply chain information they could otherwise use to make more informed sourcing decisions.

The US also relies on procurement rules to guard against modern slavery by requiring contractors to certify that they and their subcontractors are taking steps to prevent and eliminate forced labour in supply chains. Certain high-value suppliers can also be required to create compliance plans, setting out how they aim to prevent at-risk goods from entering their supply chains.

Governments in Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, and the UK also have procurement policies in place to guard against reliance on modern slavery. And while a fall 2017 Canadian government presentation indicated the government is reviewing its procurement guidelines, there is no indication for how this might introduce policies to address modern slavery.

Legislation requiring companies to report what steps, if any, they are taking to detect and eliminate modern slavery from their operations is becoming a favoured public policy tool. Currently, such laws exist in the UK, France, and California, with similar ones being developed in Australia, Holland, Hong Kong, and Switzerland.

Some Canadian companies are even reporting under these foreign laws. The UK Modern Slavery Act’s reporting requirement applies to any company doing business in the UK with an annual turnover of 36 million British pounds. To-date, 20 Canadian companies have released reports, including several large banks, Air Canada, Blackberry, and Lululemon.

Globally, laws and regulations guarding against modern slavery are proliferating and being strengthened. From 2014 to 2018, the number of states taking steps to address modern slavery rose from four to 36, with Canada left out of those ranks. In this marketplace, those businesses with robust compliance mechanisms will have a competitive advantage bidding on government contracts and attracting consumer and market popularity.

The government is creating an Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise in order to promote “responsible business conduct abroad”, but how the Ombudsperson will help Canada and Canadian businesses respond to modern slavery was not a focus of the announcement. Direction from Ottawa is still lacking.

Without government leadership, Canadian businesses are left navigating an international landscape of laws and standards on their own. As a nation, Canada is missing an opportunity to use its economic power to play a role freeing millions from 21st century slavery.

Josh Scheinert is a senior associate in the international trade and investment practice at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Toronto, and a co-head of the working group on business and human rights at the Ontario Bar Association. 

Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of theThomson Reuters Foundation or Borden Ladner Gervais LLP.

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