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4th Mar 2024

MEP: Slave-labour burden of proof should be on companies

  • Nearly ten percent of the world's aluminium, a key element in car manufacturing, is produced in China's Xinjiang region (Photo: Unsplash)
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The responsibility should be on companies to prove there is no risk of state-imposed forced labour in their supply chains, not national authorities, leading MEP Samira Rafaela has told EUobserver in an interview, saying the European Parliament is "on the right side" in calling for a reversal of the planned burden of proof in high-risk areas and sectors.

"There are so many examples where we don't need evidence anymore," she said, speaking outside the trilogue negotiations that started on Tuesday (30 January) after member states finally unblocked the negotiations.

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  • MEP Samira Rafaela: 'We know, for example, that in Turkmenistan, China, there is state-imposed forced labour' (Photo: Samira Rafaela)

"We know, for example, that in Turkmenistan, China, there is state-imposed forced labour," Rafaela added, citing various reports of evidence of Uyghur forced labour in seafood products, or public sector employees picking cotton in Turkmenistan.

The EU is currently working on new rules that will allow its authorities to investigate, ban and withdraw a product from the single market if forced labour is used in its supply chain, regardless of whether the item is produced in or imported into the EU.

However, since the commission proposed the regulation in September 2022, the three EU institutions have been far apart in their respective positions — especially when it comes to redress for victims, ownership of investigations and state-imposed forced labour.

For the parliament's negotiators on the file, reparations for victims is a key priority, but Rafaela does not want to talk of "red lines" now, as she believes that the trilogues should remain an open and constructive dialogue.

The Dutch liberal MEP believes that the EU should not on the one hand remove the economic incentive for companies to reduce prices by using forced labour) but offer nothing to the nearly 28 million people worldwide who were in this situation in 2021.

"The EU needs to take responsibility as a human rights champion," she added, stressing that remediation is already included in the Corporate Due Diligence Directive and that it must be a necessary condition for lifting the ban once there is proof that forced labour is not being used in supply chains.

Rafaela cannot disclose information about the ongoing tripartite negotiations. But if any of the parliament's priorities are challenged, she is pretty clear that both rapporteurs will take a stand.

But for civil society organisations, such as Anti-Slavery International, the removal of any reference to remedial action in the council's position is also a major concern.

"European buyers will be incentivised to disengage from at-risk suppliers to shift their productions elsewhere and victims of forced labour will be left without any leverage to fight for decent working conditions," its senior EU adviser, Helene de Rengerve, said ahead of the trilogues.

And remediation is not the only concern of NGOs, as Member States have proposed that third countries where alleged abuses occur should lead investigations, provide relevant information or verify existing evidence of the risk of forced labour.

"Third countries should not be given the green light to 'mark their own homework'," Steve Trent, CEO and founder of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) said, adding that if EU authorities cannot verify the authenticity of the investigations, any bans would be seriously weakened.

"Here, the role of the European commission comes in, as this other competent authority that can use its leverage to do such investigations," Rafaela said.

And in cases of non-cooperation from regimes where there is evidence of high-risk of state-imposed forced labour (which affects some 3.9 million people worldwide), the burden of proof should be reversed onto companies, so that they could not avoid the investigation, the MEP explained.

"We're not saying there's a reversal of the burden of proof for everybody and for every single economic operator," Rafaela said. "We have really targeted it."

The parliament is expecting the EU executive to come up with a list of high-risk geographical areas and sectors where a presumption of forced labour would apply, removing the burden of proof from national authorities and putting it on companies.

Another trilogue is expected next week, either on 4 or 5 March, and although time is short, the file is a "priority" for the Belgian EU presidency, an EU diplomat said.

Carmakers in spotlight

Nearly ten percent of the world's aluminium, a key element in car manufacturing, is produced in China's Xinjiang region, where the government subjects Uighurs and other Turkic Muslim groups to forced labour, Human Rights Watch said.

A new report released on Thursday (1 February) reveals how aluminium produced in China's Xinjiang region is shipped to other regions of the country, melted down to make products such as vehicles, and slipped undetected into domestic and global supply chains.

"Confronted with an opaque aluminium industry and the threat of Chinese government reprisals for investigating links to Xinjiang, carmakers in many cases remain unaware of the extent of their exposure to forced labour," the report said.

The analysis focused on five major companies — BYD (China), General Motors (US), Tesla (US), Toyota (Japan) and Volkswagen (Germany) — and concluded that some of them have weakened their human rights standards in their Chinese joint ventures, increasing the risk of forced labour in Xinjiang.

BYD, General Motors and Toyota did not respond to HRW's questions about their supply chain mapping or monitoring of their operations in China.

On the other hand, Europe's Volkswagen said it was not responsible under German law for the human rights impacts of its Chinese joint venture, even though it manufactures and sells cars under its brand in the country.

"Consumers should not have to buy or drive vehicles with links to grave abuses in Xinjiang," concludes the HRW report.

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