Today, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for an import ban on products produced with forced labour from entering the EU market. This is an important milestone in ensuring that forced labour does not find a home in the supply chains of European companies. However, the future instrument must put victims first and be remedy-centered.
Forced labour is the most common form of modern slavery, with an estimated 16 million people trapped in forced labour within the private sector. It often occurs in the supply chains of international businesses based, operating in, or providing goods to the EU. Yet, many companies continue to drag their feet.
Civil society has long called for the EU to take action against forced labour in EU value chains. As the world’s largest single market, the EU has considerable potential and leverage to tackle this issue.
Members of the European Parliament agreed that what counts as a product of forced labour should be measured against International Labour Organisation indicators, which include abuse of vulnerability, restriction of movement, withholding identity documents and debt bondage. Public authorities should detain and seize the goods at the EU borders in case there is “sufficient evidence” that the goods were made or transported by forced labour.
Lawmakers also agreed that the instrument should also allow for bans on products coming from a particular region in case of state-sponsored forced labour. For example, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Chinese government has detained up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and uses forced labour across factories and farms as a system of control. The region produces almost 20% of the world’s cotton – one in five cotton products sold globally, including those sold across the EU, could be tainted.
The European Parliament’s vote in favour of the trade instrument coincides with the ongoing legislative process for a directive on Sustainable Corporate Due Diligence. A future import ban could become a powerful additional tool to impose due diligence obligations on companies whose products are destined for the EU market. The objective of both instruments should be the prevention and mitigation of human rights violations in global value chains and remediation for rights-holders in instances of harm.
The European Commission is expected to present a proposal for an instrument to combat forced labour after the summer. We call on the Commission to deliver a proposal that will:
- Provide the possibility to make complaints to authorities confidentially and anonymously
- Require companies to consult victims prior to the imposition of any import controls
- Include remediation for affected workers
- Make the easing of import controls contingent on the remediation of harmed rights-holders
- Guarantee that corrective actions are done in cooperation with civil society and trade unions
- Provide additional sanctions in case of lack of cooperation or failure to take action
- Establish a public list of sanctioned entities, regions and products
Today’s vote sends a clear message to the European Commission to present a strong legal proposal. It’s time for EU trade policy to put victims first, protect workers around the world and take forced labour out of our shopping baskets once and for all.
See full civil society brief on the issue here.