TORONTO — A proposed federal bill is hoping to crack down on Canadian companies that import products tainted by child and forced labour.
The Modern Slavery Bill, tabled in the House of Commons Thursday by Liberal MP John McKay, would require companies to publicly release a report every year, detailing what they've done to ensure their supply chains are transparent and free of goods and materials fully or partially produced by children and forced labourers.
Legislation like this is helping companies do the right thing and protect human rights.Simon Lewchuk, World Vision
The bill would also give the Canadian Border Service Agency the power to ban these products and impose fines up to $250,000.
"Overwhelmingly Canadians want to be assured that the goods they consume and the services they receive are not infected by the scourge of slavery anywhere in the supply chain," said McKay in a statement.
As many as 1,200 Canadian companies could be importing products made by children and forced labourers — from bananas to carpets, shoes to emeralds and toys to Christmas decorations, according to World Vision.
About 85 million children across the world work in dangerous and dirty conditions, and 21 million adults and children are coerced to perform high-risk jobs, World Vision reported. In 2016, Canadian companies imported $34 billion in "risky goods coming from countries with high incidents of child and/or forced labour," the report said.
Countries are beginning to legislate against products made by children and forced labourers, including the United Kingdom, Australia and France, and it's time for Canada to follow suit, said Simon Lewchuk, a senior policy advisor at World Vision Canada.
"Legislation like this is helping companies do the right thing and protect human rights," Lewchuk told HuffPost Canada on Friday. "The reality is currently these issues aren't being talked about very much at all by politicians, so if anything this bill is advancing a conversation."
Right now, companies are not required to disclose the exact factories or plantations they do business with, so it's nearly impossible to track if products are made by children or slaves, Lewchuk said.
Only a handful of companies voluntarily disclose (at least in part) how they're addressing the issue, including Gildan Activewear, Loblaw, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Hudson's Bay, according to World Vision.
If the legislation passes, companies would be required to detail annually their policies on child and forced labour, activities that carry a risk of this type of labour, and how it trains its employees.
Mandatory reporting, and not the potential $250,000 fine, will be the most effective way of motivating companies to change their practices, McKay said.
"I appreciate for some companies, a $250,000 fine is the price of doing business," he told HuffPost Canada. "A company that doesn't file a report at all will have greater problems with reputation damage, a greater economic impact."
The federal government would have powers to investigate any reports that are potentially untruthful, and McKay expects NGOs would play a role in keeping track of which companies are complying with the legislation.
The bill follows a Senate report in October that recommended that the Canadian government should create legislation to end all child and forced labour in supply chains. The government will respond by February 2019.