Canada is yet to enforce a ban on imports of goods made with forced labour, the government has confirmed, as campaigners say local firms continue to source from companies linked to labour exploitation.

Governments around the world have come under pressure from campaigners and consumers to boost efforts to root out forced labour from the supply chains of imported goods, particularly in the wake of evidence that Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province have been used as forced labourers in exports industries such as cotton and solar.

Importing goods made with forced labour has been illegal in Canada since July 2020, as part of the implementation of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Canadian authorities are empowered to detain shipments suspected of being made by forced labourers but have to gather “legally sufficient and defensible evidence” in order to bar the goods from entering Canada.

In the US, customs authorities can prohibit the entry of shipments based on evidence that “reasonably but not conclusively” suggests forced labour was part of the product’s supply chain, in a system of withhold release orders (WROs). Lawmakers have proposed a similar system in Australia.

Above Ground, a human rights group, says in a report published in late June that Canada’s strict evidential requirement is making implementation of the law difficult.

There has been no enforcement of the forced labour clause to date, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) confirmed to Above Ground in an April letter, although it said mustering the evidence to prove a case may take up to six months.

When asked if any goods had been barred more recently and how many shipments had been detained for inspection since the law was implemented, a CBSA spokesperson told GTR the organisation would be unable to answer before press time.

“Unlike most other inadmissible products, there is no visual clue for a [customs officer] to understand the labour standards by which a particular import was produced,” CBSA director John Ossowski wrote to Above Ground.

“Establishing that goods were produced by forced labour and compiling evidence requires a significant amount of research and analysis in coordination with other government department partners.”

In the US, importers subject to a WRO must provide evidence such as factory locations, payslips and timesheets, in addition to information about how labour was used to source raw materials.

Focus on China, Southeast Asia

In addition to Chinese suppliers, Above Ground notes that Canadian companies have also imported from companies at high risk of using forced labour in Malaysia and Thailand.

Using shipping data available through commercial sources, which it warned can only give a partial picture, Above Ground identified five companies being used by Canadian importers which are subject to import bans by the US over forced labour concerns.

A further two companies exporting to Canada are on the US Bureau of Industry and Security’s entity list, which has banned to those companies because of their involvement in China’s repression of the mainly Muslim Uyghur minority.

The bureau’s list only formally applies to US entities, but is widely used as a benchmark for other countries because it is one of the few countries that conducts thorough investigations into overseas companies.

The companies identified by Above Ground include two high-profile Malaysian businesses: glove manufacturer Top Glove and palm oil producer Sime Darby. Both companies are subject to US customs bans issued in March this year and December 2020 respectively due to “indicators” of forced labour in their production processes.

A Top Glove executive recently said it is waiting for US authorities to verify remedial measures it has made to fix issues identified by Washington. Sime Darby did not respond to questions from GTR.

Above Ground’s research only captured imports that were made via the US, as records of direct imports to Canada were not available. That limitation and shortcomings in shipping data mean “it’s possible that very large volumes are being imported of goods produced by companies that turned up no hits in the shipping records”, the report says.

“Due to this and the small number of companies searched, what we’ve uncovered from this limited search may be just the tip of a much larger iceberg linking Canadian importers to forced labour overseas.”

Karen Hamilton, director of Above Ground, says: “We’re calling on the Canadian government to at least meet the level of ambition shown by US authorities in enforcing the ban.”

In addition to relaxing the evidence threshold for detaining shipments, the group wants customs authorities to have the power to detain shipments from high-risk areas, rather than from specific companies, and publicly announce detention of shipments and name the companies involved.

It also supports a human rights due diligence law like that recently legislated in Germany.

Canada does not yet have modern slavery legislation, but a bill currently before the senate to introduce one envisages it applying to all public companies and medium-to-large private businesses.