Is Canada serious about abolishing modern slavery? Let’s prove it.

JF

by Julie Francoeur

Canadian flag waving in front of the Parliament Building on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

December 2 marks the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.    

Coincidentally, members of the House of Commons are reviewing proposed legislation that aims to tackle the very real issues of forced and child labour in supply chains and establish accountability criteria for Canadian businesses and the Federal government.   

Bill S-211 on Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains is meant to answer our international commitments to fighting modern slavery by establishing accountability measures for the human rights abuses that exist in our supply chains through mandated reporting requirements.   

This bill is a step in the right direction and the work that has been done to date is commendable, but the desperate reality for millions of people requires more than mere steps to incite change. Tackling modern slavery demands a headlong dive into the root causes of human rights abuses that continue to plague supply chains and requires an unflinching acknowledgement of the integral responsibility Canadian businesses have in remediating these issues.     

The International Labour Organization reports that an estimated 40.3 million people are caught in modern slavery realities. It is shocking to consider that for every 1,000 people in the world today, 5-6 are victims of modern slavery, with 1 in 4 victims being children.    

While we like to think of Canada as a progressive country far removed from these issues, the stark reality is that Canada historically has not met the bar in preventing the adverse human rights impacts of business-related activities.    

As it stands, Bill S-211 asks little more of companies than a report on “its due diligence processes in relation to forced labour and child labour”. The Bill stops short of enforcing any human rights due diligence requirements. Previous mechanisms similar to those proposed in S-211 have proven insufficient in addressing the structural causes of human rights violations, and human rights abuses remain widespread and systemic in global supply chains as a result.    

Additionally, reducing the legislation to strictly focus on forced and child labour introduces a gap that could permit turning a blind eye to other human rights violations, such as human trafficking, gender-based violence, and poverty wages. In truth, we cannot expect to meaningfully tackle child and forced labour without tackling the root causes of those violations, which stem in other pervasive human rights violations. All human rights are inalienable and are interlinked and neglecting to address the multiple challenges that lead to modern slavery will result in stunted legislation that fails to meet its ambitions.    

This is why the Government must go further without delay and put forward a true human rights due diligence act. It would fall in line with the recommendations outlined by the UN Working Group and would bring Canada to level with similar legislation currently proposed by the EU. Human rights due diligence regulation can benefit all actors in supply chains and provide a consistent set of rules that foster sustainable production and trading practices. A strong legislative framework should support and incentivize companies of all sizes to help in the fight against modern slavery and fix human rights abuses in their supply chains. Canadian consumers are increasingly looking to support companies who demonstrate strong human and environmental rights practices, and the right kind of legislation will only serve to increase consumer trust overall. 

Canada has an opportunity to take its place as a leader that stands for human rights and acts to empower the most vulnerable communities. We should not undervalue the choice we have before us. Do we continue to take small catch-up steps in the fight for human rights or do we dive in and lead the change?   

Julie Francoeur is CEO of Fairtrade Canada, the Canadian chapter of Fairtrade International, a global leader in fair trade standards with more than three decades of experience working for more equitable trading practices. Fairtrade Canada works with over 200 Canadian businesses to help build sustainable supply chains.  

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