2,398 for the U.S., 1 for Canada: That's the lopsided record on targeting forced labour

How's this for a lopsided record in targeting forced labour: 2,398 for the U.S., 1 for Canada. Both countries promised in the new NAFTA to stop illicit goods, but only one has acted. U.S. efforts are only ramping up, while Canada risks trade penalties if it doesn't catch up, a Liberal MP warns.

Both countries promised to stop illicit goods in new NAFTA. Only one has acted

A statue with an outstretched arm is shown near a bridge connecting Canada and the United States.
The United States has ramped up customs inspections of cargo suspected of carrying goods made by forced labour. Canada pledged to do the same, but so far it hasn't. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)

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

Countries agreed in the new NAFTA to ban imports of products made in whole, or in part, with forced labour; Canada subsequently entrenched the rule in its own domestic law.

Yet at this stage, the enforcement record seems lopsided. If one were keeping score, it would look something like: 2,398 for the United States, 1 for Canada.

That's how many shipments each country, in the last fiscal year, stopped at customs over suspicions they contained forced-labour goods.

A woman and two men shake hands during trade talks between Canada, the United States and Mexico in 2018.
Chrystia Freeland, centre, who at the time was Canada's foreign affairs minister, and Ildefonso Guajardo, left, Mexico's then-secretary of economy, shake hands with former U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer, during trade talks in Montreal on Jan. 29, 2018. The countries eventually agreed to stop imports of forced-labour goods. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

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.

Beyond that, the U.S. also just added 32 products from different countries to an older list of illicit goods; in a separate measure, it recently targeted a sugar company in the Dominican Republic.

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.

A man wearing a suit and tie scratches his head.
Liberal MP John McKay, shown in 2019, has introduced a private member's bill in Parliament that would force large companies to file a report every year detailing steps taken to root out forced labour. Both the Conservatives and New Democrats have proposed their own legislation. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

"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.

A man picks cotton in a field.
A worker is shown at a cotton farm in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China. While clothing imports from the region have garnered most of the focus, attention is now shifting to forced-labour products in other sectors, including solar panels, electronics, food and automobiles. (Reuters)

Meanwhile, the companies face threats. In China, for example, firms that co-operate with foreign sanctions face public boycotts and also punishment under a new law.

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."

A border crossing is shown between Canada and the United States.
China accuses the U.S. of using the forced-labour issue as an excuse to wage economic war. American officials say they're just getting started. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

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.

China counters that Americans are in no position to moralize given the low- to no-wage labour documented in U.S. prisons, as well as human-trafficking into 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).

A guard tower, a fence and barbed wire surround a prison.
In Xinjiang, a guard tower is shown behind a barbed wire fence surrounding an internment facility. The main impetus for a new law in the U.S. that targets products made by forced labour is well-documented human rights abuses against Uyghurs, who live in the region. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

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 woman wearing glasses clasps her hands below her chin while sitting at a microphone.
Michelle Bachelet is shown in Geneva at her final news conference as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in August. A report issued by her office described what's happening to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as possible crimes against humanity. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Not anymore.

"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.

WATCH | China's treatment of Uyghurs could be crime against humanity, UN says:

UN says China’s treatment of Uyghurs could be crimes against humanity

1 year ago
Duration 2:13
In a new report, the United Nations accused China of a ruthless, repressive campaign against the country's Uyghur minority that could amount to crimes against humanity. The report puts the weight of the UN behind years of accusations from human rights groups and Beijing is furious.

Companies are offering services such as artificial intelligence-backed supply chain mapping, legal advice and DNA testing on materials to detect their origins.

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.

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.

The group she works for, Above Ground, has documented a number of ways current Canadian law makes it difficult to stop shipments at customs.

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]."


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.