2,398 for the U.S., 1 for Canada: That's the lopsided record on targeting forced labour
Both countries promised to stop illicit goods in new NAFTA. Only one has acted
A Uyghur activist raised a concern during an event in Washington, D.C., this month. It came during a discussion about a new U.S. law targeting modern slave labour.
At that think-tank gathering, people were evaluating how the law has worked and how it hasn't since it took effect six months ago.
During the discussion, Omer Kanat pointed to one problem: U.S. trading partners. He said some are doing little to stop the trade in forced-labour goods. And he mentioned one country specifically: the one next door.
"Canada has not stopped any shipments," the former journalist and prominent Uyghur advocate told the gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"Even though [Canada] is obligated to enforce the ban on forced-labour goods under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement."
Awkward, but true.
New U.S. law took effect 6 months ago
That's how many shipments each country, in the last fiscal year, stopped at customs over suspicions they contained forced-labour goods.
Canada didn't actually block anything permanently. The sole intercepted shipment, clothing from China, was let in after an appeal by the importer.
The pace in the United States, meanwhile, is still escalating.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is now stopping more items since a new law took effect on June 21 and, at the current rate, could target more than 5,000 shipments over a 12-month span.
The U.S. hasn't yet released a detailed breakdown of how many of these shipments were eventually let in and how many were blocked permanently.
The main impetus for the new law is well-documented human rights abuses against Uyghurs, who reside in China's Xinjiang region.
Canada risks trade penalties, Liberal MP says
Canada had better wake up, says one Canadian parliamentarian. Otherwise, he warns, the country faces economic consequences.
The glaring disparity, Liberal MP John McKay says, could eventually lead the U.S. to file a complaint under our trade pact and then, potentially, slap retaliatory penalties on some Canadian goods.
"There's going to be some retaliatory measure. And it's perfectly understandable," McKay told CBC News in an interview.
"It's perfectly understandable the Americans would be upset with us. Because they're enforcing their side of the Canada-U.S.-Mexico free-trade agreement and we're not doing ours," he said.
"It's not right. It's economically stupid, but morally it's not right."
McKay is pushing a private member's bill, S-211, through Parliament that would force large companies to file a report every year detailing steps taken to root out forced labour.
It's already passed in the Senate and received second reading in the House of Commons, and McKay hopes it will become law by the spring.
He says he can't understand why Canada Customs has detained, briefly, only one shipment — and wonders whether it's a lack of resources, or laws, that's the problem.
To be fair, the U.S. had a massive head start in preparing for this: Americans have had their own anti-forced-labour law for almost 100 years.
Companies face threats overseas
One trade expert and industry consultant defends Canada.
Eric Miller says importers are working to solve a devilishly complex issue. As an example, he cites a seemingly simple product: a T-shirt.
It takes about 100 steps to make one — from harvesting cotton to the final shipment to a store — and he says it's hard to conduct inspections on every step of the supply chain, as components pass through multiple hands via factories in several different countries.
Miller says countries can make all the promises they want in a trade agreement — but it won't amount to much without systemic change, such as new tracing technology, new laws and more public- and private-sector personnel.
"[Otherwise] it's like me saying, 'I want to run the Boston Marathon.' And then I sit on my couch and eat Cheetos all day," said Miller, a Canadian-born trade adviser at the Washington-based Rideau Potomac Strategy Group.
"Nobody in any sector of the Canadian economy wants to support forced labour.... It's not for lack of trying. There are good people working on this problem."
Miller suggests the U.S. would be ill-placed to bring a trade case on this issue, since there's no evidence Americans are close to solving the problem either.
U.S. Customs only physically inspects a tiny percentage of shipments, he says. That leaves it to researchers and reporters to flag myriad ongoing examples of forced-labour imports.
"The U.S. does not have this all figured out either," Miller said.
No shortage of forced-labour imports
Researchers keep finding evidence to suggest such imports remain plentiful. Take one recent study on the auto industry by a U.S. university and non-governmental organization.
It warns that every major car company in the world is exposed to the risk of importing goods produced by forced labour in Xinjiang, with 96 mining, processing and manufacturing companies operating there connected to the global auto sector.
Now some companies are pushing the U.S. government to conceal the very records that help researchers identify such imports.
Then there's the charge of hypocrisy on the part of the U.S.
Beijing describes this as part of a broad U.S. economic war against China — on par with American steel tariffs, export restrictions on semiconductors and now with the U.S. essentially boycotting World Trade Organization rulings (it's a long story).
Yet the scale of atrocities in Xinjiang is undeniable.
What's happening in the region is described in a United Nations report, released on Aug. 31, as possible crimes against humanity, with minority Uyghurs subjected to torture, forced labour, sexual violence and coerced sterilization.
"We are now six years into an active genocide," said Omer Kanat, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project. "This is a state-sponsored enslavement of an entire population."
The fight against these imports will only escalate, speakers at the Washington event said.
A longtime official at U.S. Customs and Border Protection described the recently enacted U.S. law as a shot across the bow. For decades, Cynthia Whittenburg says, trade policy was driven primarily by efficiency.
"There's a gravitation away from that. And [a new] focus on: Are we doing things the right way?" said Whittenburg, who was a senior agency official for a decade. She recently retired from government and now works with a national importers' association.
"Things are not going to ebb away from enforcement. There's going to be an escalation of enforcement."
Debate in Ottawa about which bill to pass
A current official at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Robert Silvers, called the issue central to his department's work, saying forced labour not only violates human rights but also undermines American workers.
"Forced labour is a cancer," he told the same event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
As a result, there's a growing industry in the U.S. in forced-labour prevention.
Angela Santos says she's hearing from new clients all the time.
The New York-based lawyer, who oversees forced-labour issues at the firm ArentFox Schiff, says compliance concerns are spreading far beyond clothing and into other sectors.
"I'm starting to get inquiries from companies in all kinds of industries — from automotive, to electronics, to everything else," she said in an interview. "So this is just starting."
In Ottawa, there's a debate about which bill Parliament should pass. MP John McKay's is the furthest advanced and has government backing.
He says his makes sense because it's more likely to get enforced than other proposals that, in his view, make big promises but risk falling short in implementation.
We’re getting rid of forced labour from Canadian supply chains. It’s a big priority.<br><br>Norway is making headway on this, so we met with officials from different gov’t departments here in Oslo to learn from what they’ve done. <br><br>In a uncertain world, <br>old friendships matter. 🇳🇴🇨🇦 <a href="https://t.co/AaJUFOq9YQ">pic.twitter.com/AaJUFOq9YQ</a>—@SeamusORegan
Other bills include Conservative-sponsored legislation in the Senate that would issue a blanket ban on goods from Xinjiang, and proposed NDP legislation in the House that's stricter than McKay's bill.
Human rights advocate Lori Waller says the Liberal-backed bill is too timid and wouldn't change fundamental problems.
Waller says the NDP bill would impose real requirements on these companies — forcing them to examine supply chains, take action and, if they fail, face lawsuits.
McKay's bill is simpler: It would require large companies to publish a report online each year detailing their efforts to solve supply chain risks, with a maximum fine for non-compliance set at $250,000.
"We think it's pretty limited," Waller said of the bill. "There's not a lot of evidence that this has been made a political priority [in Canada]."