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MPs pass law meant to curb forced labour, as critics decry its lack of teeth

The Canada flag flies on top of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 6, 2023. The House of Commons has passed a law that takes aim at child labour and forced labour around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick The Canada flag flies on top of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 6, 2023. The House of Commons has passed a law that takes aim at child labour and forced labour around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
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OTTAWA -

A bill that aims to expose the use of child labour and forced labour around the world passed the House of Commons on Wednesday.

The new law will require Canadian companies and government departments to scrutinize their supply chains and file public reports on their efforts to improve labour practices.

The intent is to ensure none of their products or components are made by children in sweatshops in other countries, or by people forced to work excessive hours.

Businesses that don't comply could face fines of up to $250,000 for failing to report, and the bill allows for the potential ban on importing goods found to be produced with forced labour.

Conservatives supported Liberals in passing the bill, which first cleared the Senate and was sponsored in the House of Commons by Liberal MP John McKay.

McKay called it a modern slavery law and said in a statement it has "serious teeth that will turn Canada from a laggard to a leader in the global fight against slavery and the worst forms of child labour."

Independent Sen. Julie Miville-Dechene, who introduced the bill, said in a statement that it's urgent for Canada to join other countries in taking action.

"According to the International Labour Organization, there may be as many as 50 million people in the world working in some form of modern slavery, up 10 million from five years ago," said Miville-Dechene.

However, the Bloc Quebecois and NDP have been critical of the measure, saying it doesn't actually hold companies accountable and doesn't have the power to end these harmful practices.

The Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability had urged MPs to vote against the bill because it does not require companies to do anything about human rights abuses in their supply chains or global operations.

The organization said in a statement the law "makes it look like the government is taking real action on human rights when it is not."

"It will not provide people who are harmed by Canadian companies, or their subsidiaries, or their suppliers, access to remedy for the abuse they have suffered, such as by bringing their grievances to Canadian courts," the network said.

It also developed model legislation that inspired a private member's bill introduced by Peter Julian last year.

Bloc and NDP MPs voted against the bill on Wednesday.

Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan said that's only because those parties wanted "to move it further."

"This is one of those instances where everybody, I think, is headed in the same direction."

While he said the bill is to be applauded, he also said the government is planning its own approach to tackling forced labour.

The government promised in its March budget to introduce a totally separate law, and O'Regan said this will deal with due diligence, ensuring companies act on information if they find forced labour in their supply chains.

O'Regan said the government is looking at best practices around the world, including the United States, European Union and Australia, as it comes up with its own legislation to achieve that.

Consultations are set to start in the coming months. He could not say how likely it will be that this second bill becomes law, though he noted that it was promised in the budget and the government would have more ability to manoeuvre it through Parliament than the bill that passed Wednesday, which came from the Senate.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2023.

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