Creating Canada’s Modern Slavery Bill

21 February 2019
Research Innovation

John McKay  | Member of the Canadian Parliament

“You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know” – William Wilberforce

British Member of Parliament William Wilberforce worked tirelessly to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. Starting in 1789, Wilberforce introduced multiple bills in Parliament designed to abolish the slave trade. In March 1807 the Abolition of Slave Trade Act passed into law, thus undermining the very economic basis of the British Empire. Having succeeded in abolishing the slave trade, he then turned his attention and formidable energies to the abolition of slavery itself. In July 1833, just days before his death, Parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery Bill.

Regrettably these legislative efforts did not lead to the end of global slavery, in fact there are far more slaves in the world today than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. By some estimates, more than 40 million people are currently enslaved around the globe.

In October of 2018, the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs released a report entitled A Call to Action: Ending the Use of All Forms of Child Labour in Supply Chains. The subcommittee based its report on evidence from the private sector, government officials, NGOs and labour representatives, and recommendations included prioritizing the elimination of forced and child labour through Canada’s assistance programmes, building a supply chain monitoring system and including slavery as a topic of discussion in all free trade negotiations. Most importantly however, the Committee also called upon the Government of Canada to introduce legislation to compel businesses to eliminate the use of forced and child labour from their supply chains.

On 13 December 2018, I introduced Bill C-423, or the Modern Slavery Bill, in Parliament. The purpose is to implement Canada’s international commitment to confirm supply chain transparency and contribute to the fight against modern slavery. The Act requires companies that have assets over CAD 20 million and revenue over CAD 40 million to ensure that their supply chains are transparent and free of goods produced by slavery if they wish to do business in Canada. The Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness through the Canadian Border Services Agency can impose an import ban on goods or materials partially or fully produced by forced labour. Parties found guilty of importing tainted goods can be subjected to a fine of up to CAD 250,000. This is in addition to the reputational damages, which often far exceed the costs of fines or import bans.

In drafting the Bill, reference was made to both the British and Australian initiatives. The UK has the most experience, but the inability to impose sanctions for failure to comply led us to conclude that there needed to be a penalty of some sort. Other considerations included Canada’s devolved constitutional framework that led us to situate it under the federal government’s Trade and Commerce power. A similar Australian bill has only recently become law and therefore is of limited guidance.

Slavery exists because people living on the margins in vulnerable situations can be compelled to work. Demand is created by consumers, largely western, who want an ever-increasing array of goods at ever diminishing prices.

The working presumption of Bill C-423 is that Canadian consumers would like to know about the supply chain when making a purchasing decision. Indeed, according to an Ipsos Reid poll, 91 per cent of Canadians would want to know if supply chains have been tainted by elements of slavery. World Vision research done in 2016 revealed that more than 1,200 companies importing approximately USD 15 billion worth of goods into Canada are at a high risk of having some form of forced or child labour in their products. Almost half of the child labourers producing these goods were between 5-11 years of age.

Addressing modern slavery is not just a Canadian issue; it is a matter of international human rights. Jurisdictions across the globe need to join with one another to eradicate this scourge.

If this Bill becomes law, Canadians will not be able to say that they did not know. The question is, will they care enough to change their purchasing decisions?

John McKay is the Member of Parliament for Scarborough-Guildwood in Ontario, Canada.

This article has been prepared by John McKay as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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