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Canadian mining and apparel lobbyists are asking the federal government to halt new legislation targeting slavery and child labour in supply chains. This corporate stalling not only serves as an admission of complicity, but also reveals the lucrative nature of forced labour under capitalism.

Canada’s new Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act was passed in May. Under the Act, certain large companies that sell goods in Canada will now be required to publish an online report about their “supply chains that carry a risk of forced labour or child labour being used” and the steps they have taken “to assess and manage that risk.” The Act, which will take effect next January, also includes an amendment to Canada’s customs tariff, banning the sale of goods produced by child labour.

Already, lobbyists for mining and clothing companies have crawled out of the woodwork to demand a freeze on these new measures. Claiming that there is a “lack of clarity” on what the expectations are, they are asking for a one-year extension so that they do not receive “unwanted penalties.” In a more or less thinly veiled threat, the lobby groups also “warn” that the ban on products of child labour may lead to shortages of critical goods entering Canada.

“We are not arguing or disputing the principle of what this bill is trying to achieve,” Ben Chalmers, vice-president of the Mining Association of Canada, told CBC News. “We just want time to be able to do a better job when we start reporting.” In other words, companies are not against the idea in “principle”, but they need more details on where to draw the line when it comes to using slavery and child labour!

Echoing the woes of his fellow lobbyists, Bob Kirke, executive director of the Canadian Apparel Federation, argued that an extension would be “in the interest of everyone as there is no clarity on what exactly [the] rules are.” One would think it is clear what the “rules” are, considering we are talking about actual slavery. What is not clear is how delays in addressing this crime are in the interest of anyone, other than the companies who benefit from it.

The current law is relatively toothless in that it really only requires large companies to report on what steps they are taking, if any, to “mitigate the risk” of forced labour in their supply chains, and does not actually force them to change anything. So, while corporate media are framing the pushback as genuine concern and desire  to abide by regulations, the lobbyists are ultimately admitting that the companies are not ready to disclose what actually goes on in the global supply chains without causing a PR disaster.

Lack of due diligence?

For well over a decade, Canadian companies, particularly in the mining sector, have been slammed for serious human rights abuses in their operations in developing countries, including but not limited to starvation wages, targeted killings of workers trying to unionize, sexual violence by private security personnel, and militarized evictions. While the role of these companies in the abuses is well-documented, only nine lawsuits have been filed in Canada since 1997 and, to date, none of these companies has been held accountable for “lack of due diligence,” as many human rights advocacy groups have pointed out.

The ugly truth is that these abuses do not just stem from passive corporate negligence. In many cases, the violence can be directly linked to wider attempts by the companies or their subsidiaries to terrorize their workers into compliance with degrading and unsafe working conditions. This serves to massively drive down costs of production, meanwhile generating handsome profits for the capitalists. 

The continued use of slavery and child labour is similarly part and parcel of this profit-driven system. Companies exist to maximize value for their shareholders and, beyond concerns about negative publicity, capitalists do not fundamentally care about addressing forced labour in their supply chains, least of all Canadian mining bosses.

This was demonstrated in 2014, when three Eritrean refugees filed a lawsuit in Canada against Nevsun Resources, a mining company headquartered in Vancouver. These men were forced to work against their will at the Bisha mine in western Eritrea by local contractors of Nevsun and were reportedly “bound and beaten, tied up in the hot sun and left for hours, while earning about $30 US per month.”

The company said that the claims were “unfounded” and that it will “vigorously defend itself” against them. Still, it repeatedly attempted to make Eritrea the forum for the lawsuit, where the case would certainly be dismissed, in 2016, in 2017, and again in 2018. Finally, in 2020, when the lawsuit was allowed to proceed in Canada against all bureaucratic odds, Nevsun settled with the plaintiffs outside of court for an undisclosed amount, avoiding any responsibility in this atrocity.

There is no doubt that the Bisha mine incident is only the very tip of the iceberg. In 2022, the International Labour Organization reported a global estimate of 250,000 adults and 1 million children who were forced to work in mines and quarries. Considering Canadian companies control more than half of mining and mineral exploration worldwide, it is not unlikely that there are tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people enslaved in Canadian-owned mines around the globe. While it is not possible to make a more accurate estimate, this should give an indication as to why Canadian mining lobbyists are anxious about publishing information online about their supply chains. 

‘Tainted’ goods

If Canadian companies are concerned about creating the perception that they profit from slavery and child labour, it is because that’s exactly what they do.

According to the Supply Chain Risk Report published in 2016, consumer goods with a high risk of being produced by forced or child labour were imported by at least 1,264 companies operating in Canada, with two-thirds being headquartered nationally. A follow-up report in 2023 also showed that Canadian imports of these at-risk goods increased by 30 per cent between 2016 and 2021, amounting to $48 billion in value. Of note, more than $14 billion of these at-risk imports were in clothing and textiles.

So it should not come as a surprise that companies selling goods in Canada have an interest in not providing transparency about how these goods are actually produced. As a matter of fact, they may not be too interested in knowing it themselves.

“The bottom line is that even a small part or input into a good can be identified as being made with prohibited forms of child labour. That good is now tainted,” apparel lobbyist Bob Kirke explains. Referring to the Customs Tariff amendment, he adds, “So, [the tainted good] should be disclosed at the border, which is highly unlikely, because why would you import it if you thought it was made with child labour? But you might find that it is!”

Kirke is clearly aware how widespread child labour is in supply chains, but he is not too keen on addressing it at the expense of profits. Before concluding that the Customs Tariff change “is going to rear its ugly head” soon, he makes sure to add that its implementation “is going to create a lot uncertainty and it’s going to redouble the efforts of [companies] to check to make sure that there is no child labour in their facilities.” What a nightmare!

The incessant calls from these lobbyists for more “clarity” and “certainty” about the new regulations should be understood for what they are: a desire to establish what the maximum acceptable amount of slavery and child labour is.

How to end slavery and child labour

Today, the number of slaves and child labourers surpasses 200 million globally, representing an international problem that cannot be tackled by individual jurisdictions. While importation of goods produced by forced or compulsory labour has technically been banned in Canada since 2020, to date, a total of one shipment of women and children’s clothing has been seized at the border, only to be released later.

Despite their astounding hypocrisy, the lobbyists are correct about one thing: the inevitability of forced labour under the existing system. Products made with this labour permeate every sector of the global market, meaning the enforcement of an actual ban on them, under the existing system, does mean shortages in Canada. Understanding this, the federal government will not launch a meaningful “fight” against slavery in supply chains, beyond weak-willed reporting requirements. 

The only way to rid the world from the bondage of slavery and child labour is to organize for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism on a global scale. As long as production is driven by the search for bigger profits for the capitalists, these crimes will continue to find a breeding ground. By expropriating these parasites, we can plan production, rationally and democratically, and remove the basis for this inhumane exploitation everywhere.