‘Modern slavery’ draws more attention as new bill increases pressure on Ottawa to act

‘Modern slavery’ draws more attention as new bill increases pressure on Ottawa to act

‘Modern slavery’ draws more attention as new bill increases pressure on Ottawa to act

Pressure is mounting on Parliament Hill for the government to take action on international slave labour even as another bill meant to bring scrutiny to Canadian firms doing business abroad was introduced in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

John McKay said the private member’s bill, introduced by his fellow Liberal MP Marcus Powlowski, is one of a number of developments he thinks shows Ottawa is on the cusp of taking some action to combat forced labour.

“I’m getting calls from the relevant ministers offices saying, ‘We’re prepared to do something,’” McKay told the Star, also pointing out four of the new mandate letters for cabinet members last year asked for action on the issue.

Forced labour around the world is being discussed more frequently of late, mainly over concerns about the practice in China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

Accusations of genocide against the Uyghur people have increased in recent years, particularly the use of internment camps with some estimates suggesting up to two million people may have been detained in them over time. China insists the camps are vocational training centres.

Stories of Uyghurs subjected to abuse, torture and forced labour have drawn attention as other nations, like the United States, introduce legislation meant to ensure products made from it don’t enter the country.

Tuesday’s bill, which isn’t directed specifically at Xinjiang but at slave labour worldwide, comes a day after virtually the same bill, introduced in the Senate in 2020 by Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne, began being studied at committee in Ottawa. McKay was behind the initial drafts of both bills.

Powlowski introduced the bill into the house because he had a better slot for private member’s business, McKay said.

But pressure for the federal government to act also touched on the finance sector last week.

On Feb. 4, a collection of current and former parliamentarians wrote a letter to Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, raising concerns about Canadian pension funds investing in China-based firms complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The letter asks Ottawa to pass a “Modern Slavery Act” that includes regulations about pension fund investments.

The missive comes months after a report by the human rights group Hong Kong Watch highlighted Canadian pension fund investments in such companies.

Those named in the report include the British Columbia Investment Management Corp. (BCI), a pension management firm for the province’s government employees, and Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), a similar firm in Quebec. (The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board has also been included in Hong Kong Watch’s research.)

Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos is one of nine people who signed the letter to Freeland and said he hopes the government “seizes it as an opportunity” to address the issue.

“Canadians are decent people,” Housakos said. “I know in my heart of hearts that Canadians don’t want to enrich themselves on the back of slave labour anywhere in the world.”

The pension funds have policies about investing responsibly. CDPQ calls on its investments to conduct operations “with due regard for rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in legislation” and “prohibiting any form of discrimination,” according to the company’s publicly available policies.

CDPQ media relations adviser Kate Monfette said the investor respects any sanctions Canada may place and follows a “broad and rigorous” process to meet its investment criteria. Monfette wouldn’t speak to the letter directly, however: “We do not comment on political matters.”

BCI, meanwhile, says it takes social considerations into account when investing, but did not respond to a request for comment. Housakos said the funds need to start heeding their own policies.

“They have a responsibility to maintain the standards Canadian expect of our government, of ourselves, of our own society,” he said.

Housakos said he has not received a reply from Freeland. Asked by the Star for comment, federal Minister of Labour Seamus O’Regan’s office released a statement referencing his mandate letter’s call to address forced labour, and saying Canada closely monitors supply chains to keep out items made using it.

Last year, the Star published a report detailing investments of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board into companies building equipment for the Chinese military.

The fund had invested in firms the U.S. had barred American companies from investing in, due to their ties to China’s military and surveillance apparatus. At the time, the Canada Pension Plan told the Star its investments were “dynamic and fast changing.”

Meanwhile, Miville-Dechêne said, while her bill does not specifically address pension funds, those funds could be affected, because managers would have to take such labour reports into consideration when deciding where to invest.

“It’s about time to look more seriously into their investment policies,” Miville-Dechêne said of the letter. “I believe this initiative is good.”

As her senate bill undergoes study, Miville-Dechêne said she isn’t partial to whether her bill or the one introduced to the house ultimately becomes law, as long as some action is taken.

If passed her bill would, among other measures, compel companies in Canada to report annually on their efforts to prevent or reduce forced and child labour in their supply chains.