4th Dec 2023

MEPs agree EU ban on forced-labour goods, but Council stalls

  • Worldwide, there are 17.3 million people in forced labour in the private sector and 3.9 million in state-imposed forced labour, such as in Turkmenistan and the Uighur region of China (Photo: Unsplash)
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A ban on products made with forced labour in the EU took another step towards reality on Monday (16 October) when MEPs in Strasbourg gave the green light to their position — although progress in the Council is still far behind.

MEPs voted 66 in favour, none against and 10 abstentions.

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The product-focused legislation aims to provide a framework for investigating the use of forced labour in companies' supply chains, allowing national authorities to ban and withdraw a product from the EU market if it is the case — whether it is made in the EU or imported into the EU.

Worldwide, there are currently 17.3 million people in forced labour in the private sector and 3.9 million in state-imposed forced labour, such as in Turkmenistan and the Uighur region of China.

"The ban that we voted is pivotal for removing an economic incentive [from companies] to engage in forced labour," Samira Rafaela (Renew Europe), one of the leading MEPs of the file, said.

"We will prevent modern slavery products from entering the European market and shield our businesses and SMEs from unethical competition," she added.

Once the Council of the EU agrees on its position, the inter-institutional negotiations, the so-called 'trilogues', will begin to decide on the final text.

That may not be finished before the end of the current term of the EU Parliament, in April 2024.

Some MEPs and civil society organisations have warned about the slow progress in the council on its position, especially during the previous Swedish EU presidency, according to media reports.

"We have limited time to get this legislation over the line and hope that the council drives forward its negotiations," commented Hélène de Rengerve, senior EU advisor at the NGO Anti-Slavery International.

The rudder of the negotiations is now being held by the Spanish EU presidency, which regards this as an "important issue" and intends to reach a general approach by the end of the year, EU officials told EUobserver.

"I'm calling upon the council to speed up the process that you are working on right now," MEP Rafaela told reporters on Tuesday. "People cannot wait any longer, and there needs to be a regulation into force as soon as possible".

China's burden of proof

The mandate follows a commission proposal from September 2022, and includes two key aspects not included in the original text.

First, MEPs have asked the EU executive for a list of high-risk geographical areas and sectors where a presumption of forced labour would apply, reversing the burden of proof from member states' authorities and putting it on companies.

"We need to ensure that special attention is paid to products from regions with state forced labour," MEP Anna Cavazzinni said ahead of the vote. "No products from forced labour, such as those made in Xinjiang, should be sold in shops in the EU".

An example is those products from the Chinese fishing industry, Rafaela pointed out. An investigation by the Outlaw Ocean Project recently revealed the use of massive forced labour to process seafood that reaches markets such as America and Europe.

And while the US already has rules in place that block imports from Xinjiang unless there is clear evidence that they are free of forced labour, the EU is still a few steps behind.

Secondly, MEPs have introduced a remedy mechanism in the draft text to compensate workers involved in the production of products using forced labour.

Under the draft, products from these companies will only be allowed back into the EU market if there is compensation for the workers and proof that forced labour has been eliminated from the supply chains. The withdrawn goods already on the EU market will however be recycled, destroyed or donated.

The parliament's amendments also include a proposal for the commission to act as an equal enforcer alongside national authorities. In this way, the EU executive would receive complaints (which would remain confidential to protect whistleblowers) and play an active coordinating role in the investigation process.

"It is crucial that the commission has the same powers as the national authorities to investigate cases of forced labour, as it will help with the effectiveness and the harmonisation of rules," MEP Maria-Manuel Leitão-Marques (S&D), the other leading rapporteur said.

The parliament's amendments addressed several shortcomings of the original proposal, organisations such as the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Anti-Slavery International acknowledged — but failed to "sufficiently" improve the investigation process leading to the ban.

The investigation period is now 90 days — compared to the 30 days originally proposed by the EU executive.

"Any credible prospect of enforcement is crucial to making this regulation work. Keeping the high threshold for evidence together with a short investigative timeline, the regulation will be nearly impossible to practically implement," said Ben Vanpeperstraete, ECCHR senior legal advisor.


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