According to a recent report by the International Labour Organization, 27.6 million people are engaged in forced labor worldwide; an increase of 2.7 million over the past five years.
Forced labor is when people are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or even to pay off a debt. It's common in many sectors around the world, from manufacturing to mining.
If you buy products in the European Union, you might assume that those products are free from forced labor. But this assumption would be wrong.
That is supposed to change with a new EU policy proposal released today, intended to prohibit products made with forced labor from being bought or sold on the common EU market. After various versions of the proposal being leaked to the press, the European Commission has now released its take at attempting a ban on forced labor. Though the proposal was broadly welcomed by both labor rights organizations and businesses, critics point to deficiencies — which might cut into its effectiveness.
"There seems to have been a reluctance to be very ambitious with this proposal from the very beginning," said Christopher Patz, a policy officer with the European Coalition for Corporate Justice in Brussels. With groups campaigning for more than a decade, "It's a disgrace it's taken so long."
The proposed regulation would allow any actor to submit a complaint over suspected forced labor to the national authority responsible for policing imports in an EU country, which the authority would then investigate. That body would be able to stop the product from entering the EU or even destroy it. Covering all products, it would also include setting up a public database indicating the likelihood of whether forced labor is taking place in a particular region.
"For maybe the first time, forced labor is clearly illegal to use and put on the market," said Muriel Treibich, a lobby and advocacy coordinator with Clean Clothes Campaign.
"The Commission proposes to exclude goods from the market only after the existence of forced labor in their supply chain has been established, not when it is suspected," said Anna Cavazzini, the German member of European Parliament who negotiated for the Greens on the topic.
This is different to US legislation, where authorities may prohibit imports based on reasonable suspicion. The US framework also places the onus on companies to prove their products are free from forced labor. The EU proposal, in contrast, places the burden of proof on European authorities, which are under-resourced and would end up doing piecemeal enforcement, critics say.
"I would have indeed been happier to see the burden of proof with the company in question as it is easier for them to gather information inside their supply chain," Cavazzini explained.
The EU proposal's high standard of evidence "makes it a bar that's very high to meet for civil society and for national enforcers," said Ben Vanpeperstraete, a senior legal adviser at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. "It's very unlikely that we'll see much enforcement on this proposal."
Vanpeperstraete pointed out that companies have various means of handling potential cost increases; for example, by reducing their margins. With clothing, he said, wages make up about 1% of the retail price (marketing can comprise 50%). A company could shift resource allocation in production or raise prices. "A 1% price increase on a t-shirt — I don't think that's a bad idea."
Patz pointed out, "If you can't be sure your business model is not contributing to forced labor, then you shouldn't be in business."