Marcella Chan

A global response to close the accountability gap and eliminate forced labour and the worst forms of child labour in corporate supply chains is more urgent than ever. Major supply chain disruptions caused by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic are not only responsible for slowing down the economic recovery, but also weakening the capacity of enterprises to ensure that their supply chains are not buoyed by child or forced labour. As businesses embark on the journey to recovery, supply-chain leaders are resorting to various strategies to make their supply chains far more flexible and agile, including dual sourcing of raw materials and near-shoring, or regionalizing their supply chains. As businesses seek to deeply and quickly transform their supply chains, new risks emerge that must be managed in order to prevent child labour, forced labour and other human rights violations within their supply chains.

In their efforts to prevent and combat child and forced labour globally, national, and regional governments are increasingly turning to mandated disclosure (transparency) and due diligence regimes as an indirect method of regulating corporate behaviour throughout various supply chains. Recent disclosure laws require companies to provide information on their global supply chains. There is also a growing tendency for these laws to impose some specific due diligence or duty of care obligations on the companies they cover. Effective monitoring, investigation and enforcement mechanisms then become necessary to ensure accountability, along with ensuring access to judicial and non-judicial remedies for those whose rights have been violated. There is considerable momentum, especially in European jurisdictions, for the creation of mandatory human rights due diligence laws, signalling a paradigm shift away from reporting/transparency-only laws and introducing legislation that applies more comprehensively to the prevention of human rights violations and harmful environment practices.

The International Centre for Criminal Law Reform recently published a new guide Supply Chains Transparency and Due Diligence Legislation to Prevent Child and Forced Labour: A Guide for Policy Makers and Legislators.[1] The thematic focus of this Guide on forced labour and child labour is intentional and timely given that 2021 is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour – 2021.[2] The Guide was developed to assist policy makers and legislators, in Canada and elsewhere, in making policy choices and designing legislation that will achieve an optimum impact on the elimination of child and forced labour. The Guide presents and discusses a range of legislative options and examples that policymakers and legislators may wish to consider in the development of supply chains transparency and due diligence legislation. The goal being to establish a statutory duty of care requiring businesses to take reasonable steps to avoid the use of forced labour, child labour, and human trafficking in their operations abroad, and to report publicly on these due diligence steps and their impact. The Guide fits within the broader international anti-slavery policy developments of the last decade or so, including the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the global standard for corporate human rights obligations.

Indeed, consistent with international guidance, states are encouraged to adopt a “smart mix of measures – national and international, mandatory and voluntary – to foster business respect for human rights”.[3] Legislative measures are only one part of that mix. This Guide offers a specific strategic action that should be considered as part of a comprehensive strategy to address the complex problems of child labour and forced labour. It aims to be instructive in developing and implementing specific legislation to create an explicit legal obligation for legal entities to be more transparent about their supply chains and to exercise due diligence throughout these chains to avoid contributing directly or indirectly to forced and child labour.

[1] Millar, H., Dandurand, Y. & Chan, M. (2022). Supply Chains Transparency and Due Diligence Legislation to Prevent Child and Forced Labour: A Guide for Policy Makers and Legislators. Vancouver: International Centre for Criminal Law Reform and Criminal Justice Policy.

[2] United Nations, General Assembly resolution 73/327.

[3] OHCHR (2011). Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, p. 4.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash.

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