Today we launch two episodes on forced and child labour. In the first episode, Sarah Diedro is in conversation with MEP for the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament and member of the German Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) Anna Cavazzini. They discuss forced labour and what the European Union can do to tackle this critical issue, whilst also protecting the vulnerable people who suffer from it. In the second episode, Sarah Diedro is in conversation with MEP for the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament and member of Ecolo Saskia Bricmont. They discuss the pressing issue of child labour and the European Union’s concerning footprint of child labour imports, as well as what can be done to lower it without pushing children into more dangerous activities.
On the speech on the state of the Union, Ursula Von der Leyen announced a proposal on forced labour import ban. This announcement was very much welcome for many NGOs and specially for Green MEP Anna Cavazzini, Chair of the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection and member of the Committee on International Trade. She has been in the forefront of Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament on this issue since February 2021, when she presented a discussion paper called ‘Towards an EU import ban on forced labour and modern slavery’.
The paper states that “around 25 million people are estimated to be in forced labour around the world,” and that one in five garments in the global markets comes from forced labour camps. But is forced labour? According to the 29th Forced Labour Convention of the International Labour Organisation, it refers to “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily”.
Most of this forced labour takes place in the Global South, but the European Union have enough legislative tools to contribute to its prevention. This is precisely what MEP Cavazzini’s paper examines: How can forced labour be addressed through an import bans on products related to severe human rights violations such as forced labour? And how can this EU mechanism act as a complementary measure to the EU legislation on corporate human rights and environmental due diligence? Import bans could be introduced in various ways, for example through:
The last option, however, is the preferred one as it would allow for goods to immediately be stopped at EU borders when there is a reasonable suspicion that they are made with forced labour. The United States already has a similar instrument in place, and lessons learned from this experience has shown that this tool would allow for more transparency on where and under which conditions the products are coming from. It is by no means a hidden protectionist tool, rather it is about focusing on the lived realities of people subjected to forced labour.
The instrument would need to be carefully designed and applied, as Anna Cavazzini explains in the podcast. The mechanism would allow Customs authorities to block an import from a third country if there is an allegation (for eg. from NGOs, United Nations, journalists) of forced labour. Then, the Company would have certain amount of time (3 months approximately in the case of the US) to prove that there is no forced labour involved. It is of urgent need as many imports that are blocked in the US for alleged forced labour reasons, are deviated to EU. Canada and Austria are also in process of developing such an instrument.
However, such a huge challenge cannot be solved with just establishing a ban on forced labour imports. Many other measures should be put in place to tackle such problematic in a comprehensive manner. Diplomatic means, development aid and most importantly horizontal due diligence legislation plays a role in the fight toend forced labourr. Citizens can also play a role, for example by buying products that are labelled as fair trade. But the real responsibility lies in policymakers and companies, as Anna Cavazzini states at the end of the podcast.