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As Supermax case highlights slavery risks in supply chains, a call to action for mandatory due diligence

Last month the Canadian government announced it had cancelled two contracts to purchase medical protective gloves manufactured by Supermax Corporation in Malaysia, drawing public attention once again to the problem of forced labour in Canadian supply chains.

The procurement contracts first fell under media scrutiny in October 2021, when American authorities moved to block Supermax’s gloves from being imported into the U.S., based on “information that reasonably indicates” the use of forced labour in their production. They said their investigation found evidence of 10 of the International Labour Organization’s 11 indicators of forced labour at Supermax’s facilities in Malaysia. This means that, according to the U.S. government, workers at the factories faced all but one of the following abuses:

  • abuse of vulnerability
  • deception
  • restriction of movement
  • isolation
  • physical and sexual violence
  • intimidation and threats
  • retention of identity documents
  • withholding of wages
  • debt bondage
  • abusive working and living conditions
  • excessive overtime[1]

The Canadian government said in a January 18 statement to media that it opted to stop buying Supermax’s gloves due to “the seriousness of the allegations” and lack of timely results from an independent audit ordered by the company.
Gloves of the type procured by the Canadian government from Supermax and allegedly made with forced labour in Malaysia
It remains unclear, however, if the government will do anything to restrict the importation and sale of these gloves to other customers in Canada. There is no indication of enforcement action having been taken in this case by the Canada Border Services Agency, which is mandated to block shipments into Canada of goods produced by forced labour. Supermax’s Canadian subsidiary stressed in a January 19 press release that it is still permitted to import its products into Canada.[2]

It’s a familiar storyline. Supermax is one of several manufacturers whose products have been allowed to keep entering the Canadian market after they’d been banned in the U.S. over forced labour concerns.

Ottawa clearly needs to step up its enforcement efforts to make meaningful progress on stemming the flow of slave-made goods into Canada. At the same time, Canada’s contribution to fighting forced labour in the global economy mustn’t be limited to import controls and a narrow focus on supply chains. What’s also urgently needed is a new law requiring that all companies based in Canada undertake due diligence to make sure they’re not contributing to forced labour — or any other human rights abuse. This would mean closely examining not just their supply chains but all their business activities and relationships for possible links to human rights violations, then taking action to prevent or remedy harm.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll be ramping up our efforts, alongside our partners in the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), to promote the adoption of such a law in Canada. Please help us reach Parliament today with the message that corporations must be legally required to respect human rights, by signing the CNCA’s petition.

[1] Supermax says it has since made improvements in its employment policies, pay structure, and employees’ working and living conditions, and has paid millions back to migrant workers as reimbursement for recruitment fees.

[2] CBC also reported, following the government’s decision, that “nitrile gloves from Supermax are still permitted to enter Canada.”