EU Proposes A Ban On Products Made With Forced Labour

The European Commission has proposed a ban on the sale of products made with forced labour. In their official statement, the Commission stated this ban is to ensure sustainability in their markets, while also ending the practice of modern slavery. Many have drawn similarities with this ban and a recent US ban on products coming from the Xinjiang region of China, where people from the Uyghur minority are subject to a staggering number of vicious human rights abuses at the hands of the Chinese government, forced labour being one of them.

The ban was called for by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in 2021, as she stated in her State of the EU address that “human rights are not for sale at any price.” The proposed ban will work on the basis of risk assessment, with national authorities investigating suspect products based on several factors, including “a database of forced labour risks focusing on specific products and geographic areas.” The ban will apply to imported, exported, and domestic products, and is expected to be enforced in one year’s time. Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Trade, Valdis Dombrovskis, stated the aim of the ban is to “eliminate all products made with forced labor from the EU market, irrespective of where they have been made.” Commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, reinforced the dedication to ethical trade, stating that “the single market is a formidable asset…and a lever to promote more sustainability across the globe.”  

This is clearly a move in the right direction for European lawmakers. Regardless of the economic toll, the EU has a clear responsibility to ensure a safe and ethical market, free from any form of modern slavery. In their report, the European Commission pointed to the 27.6 million people forced to work worldwide. The ILO estimates that out of that approximate figure, 3.9 million of those being exploited are under the authority of a state. This number includes the Uyghur population of Northwest China. Since 2017, the continuous systemic discrimination, imprisonment, and exploitation of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government have resulted in a massive, unpaid workforce situated in “vocational skills, education, and training centers.” Xinjiang is a major industrial region, one that produces 20% of the international cotton output and 45% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon, a material used in the construction of solar panels. The coalition “End Uyghur Forced Labour” reports that one in five of all garments on the market today are tainted by enslavement in the Uyghur Autonomous region. China’s crimes against the Uyghur people are deplorable, with UN reports from 2021 concluding that this constitutes genocide. What’s more, there is a clear profit being made. In 2020, the ASPI found 83 companies directly or indirectly benefitting from the oppression of the Uyghur people. This included major brand names such as Nike, North Face, Apple, and Fila.

The EU’s proposal in its current form is not without its critics. Greens MP Anna Cavazzini points to the burden of proof placed on European Authorities to deduce if a product was made using forced labour. This differs from US legislation, which allows the ban of imports given reasonable suspicion. Others are skeptical of underfunded authorities, who they believe will not investigate alleged forced labour thoroughly enough. The proposal still has a year left to go before it can be implemented on the market, which will hopefully allow lawmakers to make this policy watertight. The banning of products made with forced labor is only the beginning of eradicating the practice of modern slavery, but a widespread ban across the 28 countries on the largest trading bloc in the world is an important step in the right direction.