Banning goods produced by forced labour and the worst forms of child labour

In 2016, the United States adopted a procedure allowing civil society to file complaints on products produced by forced labour. At the same time, more severe administrative measures were being implemented and more resources were allocated to institutions responsible for import control in order to investigate and, where appropriate, block the entry to national territory of goods produced by forced labour. This legislative reform targets not only the import of goods produced by forced labour, but also extends to the worst forms of child labour. Forced labour and the worst forms of child labour are prohibited by three of the fundamental ILO conventions: Forced labour convention, 1930 (No. 29); Abolition of forced labour convention, 1957 (No. 105); Worst forms of child labour convention, 1999 (No. 182); all of which have been ratified by Canada. These prohibitions form therefore an integral part of labour rights as recognized by the ILO. As a result, trade agreements signed by Canada prohibit the use of forced labour and the worst forms of child labour. However, Canada is implementing very little concrete measures to address the use of forced labour and the worst forms of child labour in supply chains of products imported into the country. Indeed, there is no procedure for the submission of complaints, no strengthening in the custom authorities’ investigative capabilities, and no obligations on companies to exercise appropriate due diligence.


Ways to curtail the importation of goods produced by forced labour and the worst forms of child labour

  • Implementing a simplified procedure allowing civil society to file complaints. A government authority would then be mandated to review and investigate the complaint.
  • Providing customs authorities with sufficient resources to investigate the import of goods suspected of being produced using forced labour or the worst forms of child labour.
  • Incorporating specific measures into trade agreements (granting resources, simplifying examination procedures, simplifying filing complaints procedures, cooperation) in order to ensure cooperation between parties and not to impose the entire burden on national institutions.
  • Creating an institution whose mandate would be to investigate the links in production chains, of products imported into Canada and located outside the country, in order to maintain a list of products to be banned.
  • Funding NGOs interested in conducting investigations in their task to maintain a list of products to be banned.
  • Requiring companies to inspect rigorously their supply chains and submit an audit certificate to customs authorities attesting that no forced labour or worst forms of child labour were involved in the production of their products.
  • Providing authorities with the necessary legislative framework to ensure proper operationalization of relevant measures.

Arguments in favour

  • A Canadian list of goods produced using the worst forms of child labour and forced labour could help companies to know better their supply chains and invite them to stay vigilant when importing products.
  • Simplified administrative procedures foster efficiency and greater participation of civil society.
  • The impact of banning a product targets offending economic actors directly (importers and exporters) rather than governments.
  • Importers are responsible for ensuring that no link in their supply chain uses forced labour and / or the worst forms of child labour.

Arguments against

  • Child labour is caused by poverty and removing sources of income would push them into activities with more serious consequences to the development of the child.
  • Most of the work done by children is found in the domestic production sectors. Targeting imported products has little impact on the real decrease of worst forms of child labour.
  • Complexity and high costs imposed on companies for the effective implementation of traceability mechanisms in supply chains is shared among several actors in several countries.
  • The costs of providing Canadian customs services with means to investigate production lines on a global scale would be very high.

What they said:

«[…] Goods produced under conditions which do not meet rudimentary standards of decency should be regarded as contraband and ought not be allowed to pollute the channels of trade.»

Franklin D. Roosevelt, statement to defend the Fair labor standards Act in 1937


«If the U.S. government works to really keep out goods made with forced labour, this change will have a profound ripple effect on supply chains worldwide.»

David Abramowitz, Vice President of Humanity United. «The List of Slave-Labor Imports You Use Might Surprise You», McClatchy DC Bureau, March 2016


«The thought of children laboring in sweatshops is repulsive. But that does not mean we can simply think with our hearts and not our heads. Families who send their children to work in sweatshops do so because they are poor and it is the best available alternative open to them […] Passing trade sanctions or other laws that take away the option of children working in sweatshops only limits their options further and throws them into worse alternatives.»

Benjamin Powell, author of «Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy», 2014


«[S]upply chain responsibility means often not ‘cut and run’ from risky suppliers, but ‘stay and improve’. Else these regulations could have devastating negative impacts on livelihoods of legitimate businesses operating in high risk areas. […] The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises recommend that[,] […] [f]or negative impacts arising within a company’s supply chain […] companies acting alone or in cooperation with others use their leverage to influence the entity causing the impacts to prevent or mitigate the harms.»

Roel Nieuewnkamp, Chair of the OECD Working Party on Responsible Business Conduct. «Game Changing Trade Regulations in US Shake Up Corporate Supply Chain Responsibility», OECD Insights, May 2016


«As a final option for enforcing labour standards, […] consumers can apply their own private sanctions. Anyone who finds child labour or forced labour reprehensible can refuse to buy products made in countries that tolerate those practices. The ILO could push consumers into action by publishing information about offending countries and their violations. It could also publicize any country’s refusal to cooperate with ILO investigations.»

Gary Burtless. «Worker’s Rights: Labor Standards and the Global Trade», Brookings Institution, September 2001


«With the recently enacted reforms to strengthen the Tariff Act, Congress and the President have made it clear that the United States is serious about banning the importation of any goods produced with forced labor.»

Eric Gottwald, legal and policy director at the International Labor Rights Forum. «U.S. Customs Called on to Halt Imports of Forced Labor-made Cotton Goods from Turkmeistan», Cotton Campaign, Washignton D.C.,  April 2016.