27th Feb 2024

Member states stall on EU ban on forced-labour products

  • An estimated 3.9 million people worldwide are affected by state-imposed forced labour (Photo: Unsplash)
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The EU's forced labour regulation has stalled, as member states struggle to agree on a common position that would allow inter-institutional negotiations to begin — risking the text's adoption before the 2024 EU elections.

The bill aims to create a framework for investigating the use of forced labour in companies' supply chains, and allows competent authorities to ban and withdraw a product from the single market if it is found to be using forced labour — whether it is manufactured in, or imported into, the EU.

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However, civil society organisations, trade unions, and even MEPs are increasingly concerned about the slow progress in the Council, since the commission proposed the legislation in September 2022, and are urging the EU-27 to speed up negotiations.

"To maximise opportunities for the legislation to be approved before the end of the mandate, it is now of utmost importance that, during the Spanish presidency, also the council agrees on a general approach," reads a letter signed by 18 trade unions and civil society organisations sent to the delegations on Monday (27 November).

The regulation is an "important issue" for the Spanish EU presidency, which is trying to reach a general approach before the end of December — but the file was not a priority during the previous rotating presidency, that of Sweden, two EU diplomats confirmed to EUobserver.

Thus, the council is still stuck at the working group level, where delegations are still discussing what to include and exclude from their text.

At the moment, the main concern among member states is the resource implications for national authorities of the highly-decentralised investigation and enforcement system proposed by the EU executive, which relies on 27 different authorities.

As of Tuesday (28 November), delegations would be more inclined to support the parliament's position on this issue, which proposes a more active coordinating and investigative role for the commission alongside national authorities.

"A single-window complaint mechanism operated by the EU commission would be a practical solution that would greatly benefit the victims and legal representatives/organisations assisting them," the signatories of the joint letter said.

However, when it comes to state-imposed forced labour, which affects an estimated 3.9 million people worldwide, member states' ambition does not match that of the parliament.

"Having a law that only addresses the symptoms of forced labour, and not the systemic issues that perpetuate these practices would be a lost opportunity," Steve Trent, CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) told EUobserver.

MEPs called on the EU executive to draw a list of high-risk geographical areas and sectors where a presumption of forced labour would apply, shifting the burden of proof to companies.

"In cases of state-imposed forced labour, the commission's proposal did not outline any adequate investigative or enforcement mechanism, making it impractical and difficult to investigate and ascertain such cases," the signatories say.

In those situations, the EU should have the "strongest possible tools" to address it, including the possibility to ban a group of products or products from a region where forced labour is systematic, Helene de Rengervé, senior EU adviser at Anti-Slavery International said.

This would include China's Xianjiang region, where there are documented cases of Uyghur forced labour, although the commission's proposal does not explicitly mention any particular territory.

"By imposing such bans, companies would be compelled to fully eliminate the use of state-imposed forced labour in their product supply chain," de Rengervé told EUobserver.

The mechanism for investigating cases of state-imposed forced labour is one of the key elements that the signatories of the joint letter are asking the council to include in the regulation, along with remedies for victims and an evidence regime adapted to forced labour.

"The level of proof required to initiate an investigation should be lowered, taking into consideration the barriers to provide evidence experienced by victims of forced labour," the NGOs and trade unionists warn.

As for redress for victims, the council is also considering this as a necessary condition for lifting the ban on a product, along with proof that forced labour is no longer used in companies' supply chains.

"It is crucial that the EU uses its leverage as the world's largest trading bloc to engage with third-country governments on their labour standards," Trent stressed.

"The proposed regulation has the potential to significantly address forced labour in supply chains, including state-imposed forced labour, but only if it remains strong through trilogue," de Rengervé said.

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