A private member's bill recently introduced for debate in Parliament aims to stop sweatshop-produced products from making their way into Canadian stores.
Tabled by Peter Julian, international trade critic for the New Democrats, Bill C-463 would prohibit the importation of goods that were produced, manufactured, or assembled in contravention of International Labour Organization (ILO) standards.
“If we become aware of a factory that's using forced labour in a dictatorship like North Korea or Myanmar, those goods would be put on a prohibited list,” says Julian.
Corporations are attracted to sweatshops, Julian says, because they can relax safety, environmental, and health regulations and cut their costs by as much as 50 percent. Women and children—who work 12 to 16-hour days and earn between $1 and $3 per day—comprise the majority of sweatshop workers.
Julian says such measures would provide incentive for companies to check before they purchase a product because those on the prohibited list couldn’t be brought into Canada. It could also force governments in countries where there are no democratic labour practices to change their laws.
“It would put the whole emphasis on fair trade and international labour standards top-of-mind,” he says, adding that the World Trade Organization has endorsed the ILO as the “referee” for international labour standards.
These standards, to which Canada is a party, include the prohibition of any form of forced or compulsory labour, the right to collective bargaining, a minimum employment age for children, and acceptable work conditions in terms of wages, hours of work, and occupational safety and health.
“I think we would support any effort to try to put some teeth into labour standards regulations,” says Kevin Thomas of the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN), a labour and women's rights organization that supports workers in global supply chains in their efforts to win better wages and working conditions.
“It’s a good idea to find ways of ensuring that factories respect basic standards and that companies that try to undercut those standards face real repercussions.”
However, Thomas says such legislation can be difficult to enforce. “In fact, there have been all sorts of efforts to make it impossible for countries to adopt legislation like this—to require labour rights compliance as a standard in purchasing or imports and that sort of thing.”
This is because the ILO standards need to be enforced by the government of the country in which the goods are made—something easier said than done.
“Most countries are so eager for any kind of foreign investment that they can’t afford to scare it away by upholding decent labour standards. Even in Canada that’s often the case where we try to find ways to bend over backwards to bring in foreign investments at the expense of Canadians.”
Thomas says that although globalization has been an important factor in development for some countries and has provided opportunities for women in particular, in many cases it came at the expense of social rights and the environment.
“Back when NAFTA was put in place everyone said, ‘Oh no, all the work’s going to go down to Mexico.’ Now what we’re seeing is all the work’s going from Mexico to other even cheaper jurisdictions. So you have this constant race to the bottom and someone has to figure out a way to put a stop to that.”
The ILO’s report on forced labour estimates that more than 12 million people around the world are working in a type of forced labour or bondage.
Julian says he’s been working with his counterparts in the U.S. Congress where a similar bill has been introduced. Mexico and the European Union are also considering legislation to enforce ILO standards.
“It's becoming something that's more and more of interest. I think it's fair to say that in a decade we'll be looking at legislation like this regularly being introduced in democracies, and we'll see a number of countries that have adopted similar legislation.”
He says Canada “should be a leader in this area” and believes Canadians will support his bill, which is part of a series of fair trade legislative initiatives he’s been working on.
“All of those principles are principles that Canadians have already accepted so it's not a radical concept, but it's a concept whose time has come, where now we have to have action follow words.”