The European Commission has proposed banning the sale of products made by forced labour. In its official statement, the Commission said that this ban aims to ensure the sustainability of their markets, while ending the practice of modern slavery. Many have drawn similarities to this ban and a recent US ban on products from the Xinjiang region of China, where members of the Uyghur minority are subject to a staggering array of human rights abuses by of the Chinese government, forced labor being one of them.
The ban was called for by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2021, as she said in her State of the EU address that “human rights are not for sale at any price. The proposed ban will operate on the basis of a risk assessment, with national authorities investigating suspicious products based on several factors, including “a database of forced labor risks focused on specific products and geographies” . The ban will apply to imported, exported and domestic products and is expected to be implemented within a year. Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis said the aim of the ban was “to eliminate all products made with forced labor from the EU market, regardless of location where they were made”. Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton reinforced the commitment to ethical trade, saying that “the single market is a tremendous asset… and a lever to promote more sustainability around the world”.
This is clearly a step in the right direction for European legislators. Irrespective of the economic cost, the EU has a clear responsibility to ensure a safe and ethical market, free from any form of modern slavery. In its report, the European Commission pointed to the 27.6 million people forced to work in the world. The ILO estimates that of this approximate figure, 3.9 million exploited people are under the authority of a State. This number includes the Uyghur population of northwest China. Since 2017, the continued systemic discrimination, imprisonment and exploitation of Uyghurs by the Chinese government has resulted in a massive, unpaid workforce located in “vocational skills, education and training centers”. Xinjiang is a major industrial region, producing 20% of international cotton production and 45% of world-grade solar polysilicon, a material used in the construction of solar panels. The End Uyghur Forced Labor coalition reports that one in five garments on the market today are tainted by slavery in the Uyghur Autonomous Region. China’s crimes against the Uyghur people are deplorable, with the 2021 UN reports concluding that it constitutes genocide. In addition, there is a clear profit that is made. In 2020, ASPI identified 83 companies directly or indirectly benefiting from the oppression of the Uyghur people. This included major brands such as Nike, North Face, Apple and Fila.
The EU proposal in its current form is not without criticism. MP for the Greens Anna Cavazzini underlines the burden of proof that rests with the European authorities to deduce whether a product has been manufactured using forced labour. This differs from US law, which allows imports to be prohibited on reasonable suspicion. Others are skeptical of underfunded authorities, who they believe will not investigate allegations of forced labor thoroughly enough. The proposal still has a year to go before it can be implemented in the market, which will hopefully allow lawmakers to make this policy watertight. Banning products made by forced labor is just the beginning of eradicating the practice of modern slavery, but a widespread ban in all 28 countries of the world’s largest trading bloc is an important step in good direction.