How would the EU's proposed ban on products made with forced labour work?

The European Commission has proposed a crack down on forced labour worldwide by banning products partially or completely made consequently of it from being sold within the European Union.

The European Commission’s Forced Labour Product Ban regulation wouldn’t only goal products made abroad and imported into the 27-country bloc but additionally clamp down on forced labour practices inside the EU.

It could also not specifically put any country, region, company or specific industry in its crosshair.

This “non-discriminatory” approach is at the guts of the Commission’s communication on its proposed laws, with China not mentioned specifically once in any of the Commission’s material.

Yet Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in its north-western province of Xinjiang has been central to the controversy over forced labour over the past two years.

Some 100,000 individuals are estimated to be working in forced labour conditions there following detention in so-called re-education camps, in line with the US Bureau of International Labour Affairs, where they produced a variety of products starting from textiles, fair products, tomato products in addition to polysilicon, a vital material for the photovoltaic industry.

National authorities to analyze

Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis said he expects the proposal to make a “real difference in tackling modern-day slavery” while Thierry Breton, the Commissioner for Internal Market, argued that “we cannot maintain a model of consumption of products produced unsustainably.”

“Being industrial and technological leaders presupposes being more assertive in defending our values and in setting our rules and standards. Our Single Market is a formidable asset to stop products made with forced labour from circulating within the EU, and a lever to advertise more sustainability across the globe,” he added.

But criticism has already abounded, with some warning the EU regulation doesn’t go far enough.

Under the Commission’s proposal, national authorities within the EU could be tasked with investigating whether a product has been made partly or completely with forced labour. This could likely fall under the purview of either customs or market surveillance agencies.

These investigations could be assisted by a database the Commission plans to construct and maintain that will include submissions from third parties, including civil society, of forced labour risks focussing on specific products and geographic areas in addition to by a latest EU Forced Labour Product Network whose aim will likely be to boost cooperation and data sharing between member states.

The authorities would then demand data that covers their supply chains from the businesses marketing the product and/or state authorities and make a risk assessment as as to whether forced labour was used. If that is ruled to be the case, the product may have to be withdrawn from sale or blocked from entering the EU market.

Within the event firms or state authorities under investigation take too long to answer or refuse to cooperate, EU authorities will have the ability to shut their investigation on the premise of a lower evidentiary threshold.

An EU official said this could provide a “strong incentive” for firms to cooperate with EU authorities as it could give them “more of a probability to make their case”.

The official stressed that the ban will not be an end in and of itself and that a product ban doesn’t mean “the cooperation with the corporate ends”. The hope is that firms will clean up their act and take away forced labour from their supply chain to get the EU ban lifted.

This may increasingly result in a “certain economic impact”, the official conceded, arguing that in the long term this economic impact could possibly be positive because the reduced use of forced labour would result in a more level playing field.

Burden of proof ought to be on firms, critics say

The regulation would nonetheless not look into forced labour utilized in services which might limit its scope.

Yannick Jadot, a French Greens MEP and member of the International Trade Committee, meanwhile deplored that the Commission’s proposal doesn’t put a blanket ban on certain regions, just like what Washington did with its Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act.

“We must do what the US and Canada did in order that when there may be a suspicion of forced labour, it’s as much as the corporate to prove that it doesn’t use forced labour in its production,” he told Euronews.

“So for instance when it comes from North Korea, we comprehend it, when it comes from a certain variety of mines in Africa, or from a certain variety of regions with agriculture and where children work and clearly when it comes from the Uyghur Autonomous Region, there may be a suspicion of forced labour, it’s proven, we ban the imports except if the corporate proves that even on this region it didn’t use forced labour,” he explained.

Dilnur Reyhan, President of the European Uyghur Institute, also present on the parliament in Strasbourg on Monday night, stressed that “lots of of international brands are implicated on this slave work” citing Huawei on the Chinese side.

“Among the many Western brands, we all know brands like Apple, Volkswagen, Nike, Zara, Uniqlo – they’re very much implicated in Uyghur forced labour,” she said.

The Commission considers its measure to be “much larger” than the American laws, an official said since it targets all products sold within the EU, irrelevant or where they arrive from, describing Washington’s law more as “an import ban”.

The Commission’s proposal needs to be backed by the parliament and European Council. The regulation would come into force 24 months after the ultimate green light has been granted.

About 27.6 million people worldwide were in 2021 victims of forced labour, in line with the newest report released on Monday by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a United Nations agency.

That is up nearly three million from 2016.

The overwhelming majority (86%) occurs within the private sector with forced business sexual exploitation accounting for 23% of all forced labour. Almost one in eight of those in forced labour are children with migrants particularly vulnerable.


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