Human rights and environmental abuses at the hands of Canadian companies are widespread, and little legislation exists to ensure accountability. For example, Barrick Gold Corp. has been fined for mining code breaches including a cyanide leak in Argentina. It has also been accused of employing police and private security companies that commit human rights abuses that include tortures, gang rapes and killings in both Tanzania and Papua New Guinea. None of this would be addressed through Canada’s proposed Human Rights Due Diligence (HRDD) legislation, Bill S-211.
Bill S-211, the “Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act,” is poised to pass during a final vote in Canada’s House of Commons. The Act represents a narrow interpretation of HRDD legislation. Despite decades of documented human rights and environmental abuses occurring in the supply chains of Canadian companies, the Canadian government is poised to address the issue with weak and diluted box-ticking legislation.
Human rights due diligence is something that has been gaining traction across the world. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, it is a process by which businesses are expected to identify and assess (real or potential) human rights abuses occurring within their supply chains, take appropriate action to mitigate the abuses, track the effectiveness of these actions, and communicate how impacts are being addressed. This is in response to the UN’s guiding principles on business and human rights (UNGP) and OECD due diligence guidance for responsible business conduct. Unfortunately Canada is behind implementing similar legislation and the proposed legislation is unlikely to address human rights violations in a meaningful way.
If passed, Bill S-211 will require large Canadian corporations and government entities to file annual public reports indicating the steps they have taken to reduce the risk of child or forced labour in their supply chains. This would accompany a proposed ban on goods produced by child labour. However, it fails to take into account broad recommendations or lessons learned regarding HRDD legislation.
There are three key issues with the way that Canada’s legislation is currently framed.
First, the scope is incredibly narrow. It fails to address human and environmental rights beyond child and forced labour, despite knowledge of human rights abuses that go beyond this narrow scope. Countries like Germany and France have recently passed similar legislation that, while imperfect, expressly address both human rights and environmental practices. Given the UN’s General Assembly’s recent resolution that “a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is essential for the enjoyment of our human rights,” this is something that should be included in a modern HRDD bill.
Second, it lacks accountability mechanisms that enforce HRDD requirements, despite evidence that suggests laws that focus solely on disclosure and risk reporting do not have strong results. In their mandatory supply chain risk reports, there would be no repercussions for lack of actionable progress.
As a result, there appears to be no incentive to address human rights violations in Canadian supply chains and no real consequence other than “naming and shaming” businesses that do not make an effort.
Third, it encourages companies to abandon or avoid sourcing from high-risk regions, rather than working with suppliers to identify and address human rights abuses. This “cut and run” approach is both ineffective and harmful to many areas of the Global South.
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Patagonia provides an example of what can happen when there are close supplier relationships. Perhaps most impressively, the company stays with many suppliers long term and actively works with them to resolve any challenges where it’s appropriate. Supply decisions address sustainability and human rights standards alongside ordinary considerations related to price and quality. This type of corporate practice is not encouraged through the current risk-based approach of Bill S-211.
These weaknesses contradict the mandate letter commitments of Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan to “introduce legislation to eradicate forced labour from Canadian supply chains and ensure that Canadian businesses operating abroad do not contribute to human rights abuses.”
HRDD legislation, if properly implemented, can prevent some of the most abhorrent corporate practices.
The myth of Canada as a voice for human rights
Addressing these weaknesses prior to the final vote requires an “all-hands-on-deck” approach from those concerned about trade, human rights and the environment. Trade justice advocates have long supported a bill that would ensure accountability for human rights and environmental abuses in supply chains. However, Bill S-211 is a watered-down version of that original vision, tackling only a fraction of the challenges that remain pervasive in Canadian company’s global supply chains.
If Bill S-211 passes in its current format, it will not be revisited for five years. That’s five years of missed opportunities to address some of the most pressing global corporate accountability issues and work towards Canada’s international commitments related to human rights and the environment. Leading up to the vote, a unified voice is needed to advocate for effective HRDD legislation in Canada alongside organizations such as Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, World Vision and Fairtrade Canada in advocating for an improved legislation.
Editor’s note: The authors spent eight months working with Fairtrade Canada to conduct international trade justice advocacy research.