Millions of children and marginalized people are caught in slavery. Now, Canada is looking at a call for legislation that would address supply-chain abuses.

Close to 40.3 million people around the world are caught in modern slavery, the International Labour Organization estimates. One in four is a child. This staggering global problem was the subject of a recent House of Commons committee report, with bold recommendations for eradicating child labour and forced labour in supply chains.

The report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development – A Call to Action: Ending the Use of All Forms of Child Labour in Supply Chains – zeroes in on companies and the role they play in this global abuse.

In short, MPs are calling for the creation of legislation and policy initiatives that can be used to motivate businesses to eliminate any child labour in their global supply chains.

The Canadian government now has an opportunity to take legislative action that could protect the young and marginalized around the globe, and require Canadian companies to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for the presence of child labour and forced labour – and other human rights abuses – in their supply chains.

The difficulty lies in creating an approach with teeth.

A simple prohibition of child labour and human-rights violations in supply chains and mandatory reporting by companies – though noble – is insufficient without adequate monitoring, follow-up and protections for victims or those at risk of enslavement.

There are no simple solutions to ending child labour and modern slavery. Poverty and hidden, unregulated work are responsible for a lot of child labour. At Fairtrade Canada, we look for ways to address abuses in global supply chains by working with farmers and organizations of workers, suppliers, industry, NGOs, trade unions and governmental bodies.

Companies need to play a role in detecting and preventing instances of slavery and child labour. Due diligence by companies would complement and extend government efforts. But the government needs to be clear in its message: that human-rights issues are fundamental to how business is done in Canada.

A strong Canadian act addressing due diligence on modern slavery and human rights could help ensure that businesses and intermediaries proactively investigate, mitigate, report on and remedy instances of slavery, child labour and human-rights abuses in their supply chains while reducing business risks connected with these occurrences.

Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. There are models to build on and improve from including the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, passed in 2010, the UK Modern Slavery Act from 2015, the French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law from 2017 and the Australian Modern Slavery Act, newly ratified this fall. The lessons learned from the challenges of implementing these acts could help Canada to create a highly effective law governing due diligence on modern slavery and human rights.

The proposed act should:

  1. Proactively build business awareness: In our experience, most companies are unaware of how child and forced labour can become part of their supply chains. We must ensure companies understand the legislation and can develop strategies to ensure compliance and due diligence.
  2. Push beyond voluntarism: It must be mandatory for companies to practice due diligence and report assessments of the risk of child labour or forced labour being used in their supply chains. Management must demonstrate concrete actions the company is taking to address any presence of human-rights violations. Penalties should be introduced for companies that fail to report within a reasonable timeframe.
  3. Protect victims: Enforcement or intervention should first and foremost be enacted with consideration for the protection of those who are vulnerable or are caught in modern slavery and child labour.
  4. Leverage public procurement: Public-sector contracts must require that public bodies and their subcontractors report on their due diligence to address modern slavery, child labour and human rights.
  5. Leverage consumer power: Create a central, public registry of declarations by companies detailing their efforts to stop modern slavery, child labour and human trafficking. Create a list of companies required to report under Canadian law. The moves could help provide the transparency that consumers and companies need to make decisions when purchasing goods.
  6. Eliminate reporting thresholds: If we are to make human rights core to business, compliance should be demanded of all businesses – large and small.
  7. Go beyond reporting: Company obligations should go beyond reporting on risk of use of child labour and forced labour. They should include proactive due diligence on prevention, identification and remediation of human-rights violations. This due diligence must extend beyond the first tier of suppliers. Fairtrade Canada and other stakeholders can help the Canadian government develop metrics to objectively assess this.
  8. Require responsibility at the highest level: Company statements and policies on due diligence must be signed off at a high level: by the CEO or at least one director and the chair of the board.
  9. Use third-party audits as best practice: As per OECD guidance, companies should be encouraged to carry out independent third-party audits of their supply chains at identified points of risk as part of their due diligence.

A firm, legislative framework will help motivate businesses to eliminate modern slavery in their supply chain and empower consumers and investors to be proactive in addressing the issue. Companies need support on how to monitor their supply chain for child labour or other human-rights risks and how to act responsibly when they find it.

The clock is ticking. The government has a deadline of February 13, 2019, to commit to acting on the report and introducing supply-chain legislation. House rules require the government’s response to be tabled within 120 days of a committee report requesting a response is submitted.

It will take a lot of work to create such an act, but it is incumbent upon civil society, trade unions, investors, private sector and government to push to make modern slavery a thing of the past.

Photo: Miners, some of them children, stand around at a gold mine outside the town of Kapoeta, South Sudan, on Monday, Aug. 6, 2018. South Sudan’s five-year civil war has devastated the economy, fueling child labour in some of the country’s most impoverished regions. By Sam Mednick/Associated Press.


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