Despite the seriousness of its topic, Uyghur advocate Mehmet Tohti says a bill to combat modern slavery makes him laugh.

The federal law, Bill S-211, if passed, would force companies to report on steps they took to identify and prevent forced and child labour in their supply chains, but wouldn’t make it illegal to use slave labour or to knowingly import goods made with slave labour. 

The bill was introduced by a senator, is sponsored by MP John McKay and has the Liberal government’s support.

“A report once a year does not stop products made with forced labour from coming into Canada,” said Tohti, the executive director of Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project (URAP).

“And if a company fails to report, it is fined $250,000. It’s a joke. This is pennies to a big company.”

Tohti is among a chorus of critics who say the bill is not only toothless, but it comes at a time when other countries have found effective ways to combat slave labour. And worse, it could even serve as a smoke screen that delays further action. 

The bill is in its third reading and could become law in the coming weeks. 

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“S-211 is nothing but pretense,” Tohti said. “It doesn’t do anything.”

Uyghur workers are seen in a factory in an undated stock photo in Xinjiang, China. Reporters have revealed the mass incarceration and “mobilization” of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs to Chinese detention centres, factories and farms. Credit: Shutterstock

Forced labour a tool in ethnic cleansing campaign

Uyghurs are a Turkic people—a predominantly Muslim population who live in Central and East Asia.

In 2020, investigations by international journalists revealed systemic surveillance, incarceration and “mobilization” of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs to Chinese detention centres, factories and farms. The reporting, based on leaked data from hacked Chinese government computers, included documents, photos and spreadsheets that describe Chinese policies to transform Uyghurs’ “deep-rooted, lazy thinking” into “surplus labour.” 

“The state policy of China—using Uyghur scholars to manufacture goods, destroying Uyghur cultural identity, and [using Uyghur] forced labour—is genocide,” Tohti said. 

Tohti grew up in Kashgar, East Turkistan, which is the name Uyghurs use to refer to their homeland, an area located in northwest China. 

Tohti describes Kashgar as “the cradle of Uyghur culture, the heart of the Asian Silk Road.” A professor of biology, he said he fled his home and family in 1991 on a fake passport when the Chinese government started arresting Uyghur scholars, forcing them to work in factories. His activism in Canada led to the House of Commons’ support in 2021 for a motion to declare China’s treatment of Uyghurs a genocide.

Kayum Masimov, a project manager with URAP who works with Uyghur refugees in Canada, said that large quantities of products sold in Canada can be traced to Uyghur slave labour or the Uyghur region.

“Eighty-five to 90 per cent of the cotton coming from China is made by Uyghur slave labour. Thirty-five per cent of the ketchup you use in Canada comes from the Uyghur Region,” Masimov said. “Solar panels use polysilicon, produced in this region; Canadian Solar [headquartered in Guelph] operates five kilometres from a concentration camp.” 

“I interview refugees who say they worked 17 to 18 hours straight for seven to nine dollars pay per month, starting at 13 to 14 years of age. Party officials come to a farming family, knock on their door and say, ‘You have four children. Pick one to go to concentration camp and one we will take to work.’ At work they hand-pick cotton—it is higher quality than machine harvested. And it can still be sold at a low price.”

Research by Above Ground, an organization that examines Canadian companies’ respect for human rights, identifies nearly 200 shipments to Canada since 2020 from companies that have been charged with labour code violations or that have been blacklisted by the United States as using forced or child labour. These include shipments from China.

A cargo ship is seen off the coast of Vancouver. Advocates say that the United States is much more effective than Canada at stopping the importation of goods made with slave labour. Credit: Unsplash

Similar laws have already failed

Reporting legislation like Bill S-211 has been in place in the United Kingdom and Australia since 2015 and 2019 respectively. 

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a global human rights monitoring agency, reported that during its first five years, the U.K.’s Modern Slavery Act “has not driven significant improvement in corporate practices to end modern slavery.” One failure, the report says, is that companies were publishing general statements that ignored the specific labour problems common to their sectors. 

Australia’s Human Rights Law Centre reported that in the first three years of Australia’s Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act, “companies are still failing to identify obvious modern slavery risks in their supply chains or take action to address them,” with 66 per cent of companies failing to comply with the basic reporting requirements and a tiny fraction—just six per cent of companies—taking effective action to address those risks.

In March 2022, Surya Deva of the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights testified at Senate hearings on Bill S-211, challenging Canada as to why it would pursue “a very defective model of regulation when far superior models of regulation are emerging.”

Stronger rules are effective in U.S., Europe

France, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway have all adopted human rights and due diligence legislation that includes banning goods made with forced or child labour from their supply chains. 

Tohti is using this momentum to advocate with the international organization World Uyghur Congress. “There is now serious discussion at the European Parliament to enact legislation to ban the use of forced labour,” he said, which would require all EU countries to adopt due diligence laws.

The United States has rigorous mechanisms to keep products tainted by forced and child labour from entering the country. Under the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement, Canada is also committed to prohibiting tainted goods from entering the country, but Canada has yet to enforce this aspect of its trade law.

“Since 2020, the U.S. has stopped US$1.3 billion in products made by Uyghur forced labour,” said Tohti. “Canada has stopped zero.”

Canadian Border Services Agency did seize one shipment between 2020 and 2022, but that shipment was later released. 

While Canadian law requires customs border agents to have “legally sufficient and defensible evidence of production of forced labour” before a particular shipment can be stopped, U.S. border patrol puts the onus on an importer to prove its supply chain is clean if a shipment provokes “reasonable suspicion,” usually based on the shipment’s region of origin or the company’s labour track record. 

Liberal MP John McKay is the sponsor of Bill S-211, which critics say is much less effective than other bills that have been introduced to the House of Commons. Credit: ParlVu

Lax laws make Canada ‘a dumping ground’

Given the complexity of global supply chains, this onus makes a big difference in enforcement, and, ultimately, in where suspicious goods end up.

“We are falling behind our domestic and international obligations to end slavery,” Tohti said. “Canada has become a dumping ground for forced labour.”

McKay, the Liberal MP for Scarborough–Guildwood and sponsor of Bill S-211, came under fire last month for misrepresenting the bill at the Standing Committee on International Trade. McKay said that Bill S-211 would require a company to “examine its supply chain and satisfy itself that there is no slavery,” and “sign a statement to that effect with the same impact that it would if you signed a false statement for an accountant.”

“[McKay’s] statement is inaccurate,” Penelope Simons, professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, wrote in response to McKay’s comments. “Under the bill, there is no requirement to examine the supply chain and to ensure there is no forced labour.” 

Emily Dwyer, policy director for the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), said Bill S-211 will make it more difficult for Canada to combat forced labour because it creates a smoke screen, allowing government to delay action.

“We want the government to start taking this seriously, and the track record is not good. It’s been five years since the creation of the Ombudsperson [Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise], and still the office does not have basic powers. We’re supposed to have a ban on imports with forced labour, and there’s no enforcement,” she said. “And now we have S-211.”

Nevertheless, Dwyer remains optimistic. “The minister of labour has said on record that he wants to pass legislation that will be effective,” she said. 

“But MPs need to know that Canadians care, and that they are not going to be fooled by this bill.”

Despite saying Bill S-211 had his backing, the office of Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan stressed in a statement that it is a private member’s bill.

“The Minister is committed to tabling government legislation to eliminate forced labour from Canadian supply chains, as per his mandate,” the minister’s office told The Breach by email.

Two other bills on the topic, one introduced by a senator and one by an NDP MP, haven’t made it past second reading. 

Bill C-262, Corporate Responsibility to Protect Human Rights Act, prohibits forced labour in Canadian supply chains and prevents and remedies other human rights and environmental abuses by Canadian companies working overseas. Bill S-204, Xinjiang Manufactured Goods Importation Prohibition Act, bans products produced wholly or in part in East Turkistan.

“Government favours empty rhetoric, therefore this is [the legislation] the government chooses,” Masimov said. “They give the red carpet treatment to S-211, while more effective bills are in the works.”

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