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Anticipated Canadian law on forced and child labour will achieve very little, say experts

Canada’s Parliament will soon vote on Bill S-211, a corporate reporting law meant to “fight” forced and child labour in global supply chains. Human rights and labour experts who’ve weighed in on the law have said it will do little, if anything, to achieve that aim.

Here’s a selection of their comments, from their testimony to Parliament and opinion pieces published over the past year.

"At best, disclosure laws raise awareness of the problem. At worst, they are a form of window dressing in which reporting substitutes for remedial action. […] The time has passed for modest first steps. Simply requiring companies to report is not enough. It is time to make them act and require them to exercise due diligence in addressing the problem of child and forced labour...”

- Judy Fudge, legal scholar and LiUNA chair of global labour issues at McMaster University, in Policy Options

“[Companies] can... satisfy their obligations under the bill by simply reporting that they have taken no action whatsoever to mitigate or prevent human rights abuses. […] [C]ountries are now understanding ... that real laws that actually address the issue need to be passed, not merely laws that look to gather information.”

- Nicole Barrett, professor and director of the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic at UBC’s Peter A Allard School of Law, in testimony to the Senate

“Under the bill, there is no requirement to examine the supply chain and to ensure there is no forced labour. While companies can be fined for providing misleading or false information, the information they are required to provide is not whether there is forced or child labour in the supply chain. [It] is simply about policies in place and steps, if any, the company has taken to reduce [this] risk...”

- Penelope Simons, professor and Gordon F. Henderson Chair in Human Rights, Faculty of Law and Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa, in analysis written in February 2023

“…[I]f Bill S-211 becomes law it will do little to address problems of forced or child labour in supply chains of Canadian companies. This is because the bill… is essentially a copy of the U.K.’s Modern Slavery Act, which has proved to be ineffective. When it was first introduced in 2015, the Modern Slavery Act was thought of as groundbreaking. Yet, studies have found that, ultimately, the act did not result in systemic changes to corporate behaviour to eradicate labour problems, even in high risk areas.”

- Barnali Choudhury, professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and director of the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime & Security, in the Toronto Star

“I can assure you, senators, that this bill will fail to prevent modern slavery… The internationally recognized tool to prevent adverse impacts on human rights, including modern slavery in this case, is continuous practice of meaningful human rights due diligence.”

- Surya Deva, former chair of the UN’s working group on business and human rights, in testimony to the Senate

The academics who testified to Parliament on Bill S-211 called for amendments so sweeping they would have utterly transformed the bill – from simple reporting legislation into a mandatory due diligence law. Unfortunately, none were adopted, leaving us with a bill so weak that Above Ground and the dozens of other civil society groups forming the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability have urged lawmakers to vote against it.