Irish customs authorities will be asked to seize clothing, food and other goods made by forced labor under a new EU ban.
The ban will affect imports and exports of goods from the 27-member area, whether produced by EU companies or not, but does not cover services.
There will be no exemption for small businesses, as there was in a “due diligence” law filed in February that aims to prevent abuse by requiring companies to audit their supply chains.
The move comes as the incidences of modern slavery are on the rise. According to the International Labor Organization, there are now 27.6 million people in forced labor, up from around 21 million in 2015.
The EU ban has China in its sights, after many criticized the bloc for stopping short of a US-style ban on cotton imports from the Xinjiang region, home of the Muslim minority uyghur. The region is also a major source of materials for solar panel manufacturers.
The UN human rights commissioner said in August that China had committed “serious human rights violations” against the Uyghur people, including torture, rape, arbitrary detention and discrimination.
European Commission trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis said the EU ban would be “effective and proportionate”.
“Forced labor is a global problem. It is a cruel form of modern slavery, with millions of people trapped around the world, including here in Europe,” he said.
“The objective is clear: to keep the EU market free of products produced, extracted or harvested by forced labour.”
According to the EU, textiles, mining and agri-food are the sectors most at risk.
Clothing giant Primark told a UK parliament committee it pulled out of Xinjiang in 2019 – it sourced from a factory there – and hasn’t done business with the region since.
Irish mining company Kenmare Resources said in its 2021 sustainability report that it had audited 62 suppliers at its Moma mine in Mozambique, and found “strong support and compliance” with company rules, and said that it was carrying out new audits this year.
But the Irish fishing fleet has recently been challenged by the US State Department for exploiting foreign workers.
“The visas for people coming from outside the EU – from Asia and Africa – to work in the fishery, they were tied to the employer to provide them with the visas, so that left them open to anyone kinds of horrific exploitation,” said Mary Lawlor. , UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, who is also Assistant Professor of Business at Trinity College Dublin.
“The amounts [they were getting paid] were fierce, like it was €2.83 an hour, and they were forced to work over 100 hours a week.
The revelations led to the United States demoting Ireland under its Trafficking Protection Act – the demotion was reversed this year – and threatening to launch an official customs investigation.
The EU ban – which will have to be approved by governments and MPs before it becomes law – would allow customs authorities to order inspections of products if they have “well-founded suspicions” that they were made with forced labor.
Businesses could be asked to hand over documents, while factories inside and outside the EU could be subject to spot checks.
If goods are found to have been made by forced labor, companies will bear the burden – and cost – of destroying or otherwise disposing of them.
The new powers resemble those in place in the United States.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection can detain imported goods — under a system of “hold release orders” — if it has “reasonable evidence” that they were made by forced labor, and seize them if it has “conclusive” evidence.
It is currently fulfilling 54 orders globally, 35 of which are from China and cover products such as cotton, tea, rubber gloves and hair products.
The EU ban goes further than the US by including exports.
But the European Coalition for Corporate Justice (ECCJ) has criticized the bloc for failing to include remedies for victims of forced labor, who have their passports and wages
The ECCJ says it is also wrong to place the burden of proof on overburdened and underfunded customs authorities, rather than on the companies themselves.
Under draft versions of the EU proposal, customs would have only 30 days to conduct preliminary investigations into allegations of forced labor before launching an investigation.
UN special rapporteur Mary Lawlor said companies “should take compliance seriously” because “in the long run it is good” for their reputation.
She said small businesses can get information from human rights defenders because they “will know which companies are engaging in forced labor and other serious human rights and environmental abuses in the countries where they operate. “.
The bloc is currently negotiating two separate supply chain laws: one requiring companies to audit their suppliers for human rights and environmental abuses; the other bans products – including meat, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, soy and timber – that cause deforestation.
“It’s good that they’re coming at the same time,” said Sorcha Tunney, co-ordinator of the Irish Coalition for Business and Human Rights.
“Standards, codes of practice, codes of conduct, agreements between companies don’t work,” she said.