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Canada’s failure to block forced-labour imports draws U.S. scrutiny

Canada made a promise to block imports of products made by forced labour under the new North American trade agreement. Its enforcement level so far? Zero. This is drawing scrutiny south of the border where a U.S. senator is proposing a solution.

The countries made a deal. Canada isn't complying, says a U.S. senator — who proposes a solution

Protester in handcuffs outside White House

Canada made a promise to block imports of products made by forced labour, to keep those goods from entering this continent as part of the new North American trade agreement.

Now a U.S. senator heavily involved in the issue offers a blunt answer when asked by CBC News whether Canada is keeping that promise.

"No, not yet," Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who co-wrote his own country's legislation on the topic, said, followed by a dead silence.

The bill he introduced is about to mark its two-year anniversary.

That U.S. law created a list of products allegedly made in forced re-education camps in China's Xinjiang region — primarily clothing, food and electronics.

The bill means those products must be stopped at the U.S. border. Then, because Merkley's bill creates a reverse-burden of proof, if the importer can't provide evidence that paid workers made those goods, they're turned away.

This has unleashed a surge in enforcement.

A new public website tracking this data says the U.S. has detained over 8,400 shipments at customs, ultimately refusing entry to 3,375 shipments. That's in addition to older U.S. laws that apply to a list of other products around the world.

"This system is having a real impact. There's teeth in the system," Merkley said.

But he added a caveat, noting this program would be more useful if the U.S.'s neighbours to the north and south, Canada and Mexico, were also keeping these goods from the continent.

Canada's enforcement tally? Nil, so far. The Canada Border Services Agency tells CBC News it detained one delivery in Quebec in the fall of 2021, but the importer challenged the detention, and the shipment was allowed in.

Man at lectern during news conference

U.S. Senator fears Canada is a back door

This is a problem for the United States, Merkley said, because U.S. policymakers suspect that Canada is becoming a back door into the continent.

Merkley worries that goods blocked in his own state of Oregon, for example, are being rerouted to nearby ports, like in B.C., and then traded across the continent.

"[They're] trans-shipped elsewhere," he said.

"While we don't have detailed information about where they're trans-shipped, the assumption of most people who follow this is they're shipped to Canada."

Merkley has been examining ways to beef up cross-border co-operation on the issue. In a meeting last month with Canadian MPs, he suggested sharing lists, with the idea being that if one North American country blocked a shipment containing forced-labour goods, all three countries would work off the same list to keep it out.

"Each nation would automatically honour the rejection by the other two nations," Merkley said.

"So, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, if any of them rejected it, based on their conclusion it was produced from slave labour, we automatically honour that conclusion."

He says the idea is still fresh, and it's not yet clear whether it would require new laws in the different countries, or whether it could be done by cabinet orders, using laws already passed to implement the continental trade deal reached in 2018.

And if there's no progress, would the U.S. launch a trade suit? Merkley says that "hasn't been part of the conversation," noting he's looking for co-operation, not confrontation.

"Canada is our partner to the north. I think we're approaching this in a strategy of sharing our experiences and enhancing our effectiveness."

Aerial view of tractor working along vast white cotton field

Leaks could be irritant during NAFTA renewal: MP

But one Canadian MP who's worked on this issue predicts it will, in fact, become an irritant if there's no course-correction.

Liberal MP John McKay discussed this with Merkley last month when he co-led a Canadian parliamentary delegation to Washington.

​​The U.S. is right to assume Canada is becoming a conduit for these goods, McKay told CBC News in an interview.

"The Americans feel, I'm sure, that there's leakage," McKay said.

"That's, in my opinion, a well-founded presumption."

This could become a problem as countries start the process in 2026 to renew the new NAFTA, per the terms of the agreement.

In his Washington meetings, McKay explained that Canada is working on new legislation.

This is on top of the private-member's bill McKay has already helped pass: S-211, which was adopted last year, requires annual reports from government institutions and large companies about steps they've taken to root out forced labour.

The federal cabinet is now working on a bill with additional teeth.

Leaders holding up agreement

Canada working on a new law

The office of Labour Minister Seamus O'Regan told CBC News the legislation will not have a reverse-onus rule like the one in the United States.

The bill will, however, create new tools for the Canada Border Services Agency to find violators; it won't be limited to goods from Xinjiang and China; and it will be introduced in Parliament by the end of this year, said O'Regan's office.

It's worth noting that Washington's enforcement has primarily targeted labour camps run by its rival, China — where the detention of Muslim-minority Uyghurs may, according to the United Nations, constitute crimes against humanity.

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That hasn't stopped banned cotton from that region from entering the U.S. supply chain: one report this month said traces of the banned material were found in almost one-fifth of merchandise samples in the U.S. and internationally.

Nor has the U.S. targeted abuses elsewhere nearly as aggressively.

An advocate whose family experienced the scourge of forced labour first-hand says it's good some countries are starting to act.

"But if you look at the implementation side … you don't see that much," said Mahendra Pandey, vice chair of the international NGO The Freedom Fund.

"Laws should be implemented now. Not just written."

A worker harvests bits of cotton that are fluttering with the blue sky in the backdrop

One family's story

Pandey says his father spent over a decade in Saudi Arabia as a cleaner of commercial buildings. He had his passport confiscated, was paid irregularly and slowly lost contact with family back in Nepal.

He says he only realized this when he went to join his father in Saudi Arabia to search for work himself in the early 2000s.

It was then that he learned his father, Mitra, was forced to live in a one-room flat with eight people. They slept in bunk beds, shared a kitchen and were required to reserve a time slot to use the bathroom before a bus picked them up every morning at 5 a.m.

Seeing his aged father forced to line up to use the bathroom at home, collecting cans people threw away at the soccer stadium he cleaned ignited something in Pandey.

"I was so angry," he said in an interview. "That anger, that fury, is still [there]."

Head shot of man

He says he worked under slightly better conditions for just over two years in a clothing store, but also had his passport taken away and his movement limited.

The father and son eventually convinced their employers to let them leave, though Mitra first had to pay off housing debts. Pandey eventually got a college education and moved to the Washington, D.C., area.

He channeled his sense of outrage into work, founding the Global Migrant Workers Network, in addition to other NGO roles.

Pandey's wish, aside from seeing countries take action, is for regular people to ask questions about the products they buy, and to look beyond headlines about Saudi Arabia and Qatar hosting World Cup soccer tournaments, and soccer superstars signing lucrative contracts in Saudi.

He wants ordinary people to care about those who clean the soccer stadiums and make the products.

"So much of human rights is about that," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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