Human rights are not for sale at any price. With these words, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, announced on September 15, during the State of the Union address, her desire to achieve a ban on the European market for the sale of products “produced by forced labour”.
MEPs, who meet in plenary on Thursday in Strasbourg, will vote on a draft resolution outlining the system they want the Commission to adopt next September.
What does the draft resolution contain?
The new instrument proposed by MEPs provides for a “ban [sur le marché européen, NDLR] products of forced labor originating from a particular site of production, an importer or a particular firm”, but also from an area in the case of state-sponsored forced labour.
Thus, EU authorities and countries will be able to prevent certain products from entering the European market at the borders of the Union as soon as “it considers that there is sufficient evidence that these goods were manufactured or transported in the course of forced labour.”
The draft states that if the importer objects to the decision, it is the latter who must prove “that the goods were not manufactured or transported as part of forced labor, which may then lead to the release of the goods.” The true opposite of the burden of proof.
Before the vote, MEPs must question the committee about the scope of this new instrument, the international plans of action that will be developed as well as the practical methods of implementation. The Commission will then present the new tool in September.
The framework proposed by the European resolution already exists on the other side of the Atlantic. In the United States, anti-forced labor legislation, the “Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act,” dates back to 1930, and makes it possible to ban the import of goods if forced labor is suspected while they are being manufactured. A provision applicable since September 14, 2020 to certain imports from Xinjiang.
On December 23, 2021, Joe Biden signed the “Uyghur Prevention of Forced Labor Law,” a law that now applies to all imports from Xinjiang, with the burden of proof reversed. It is now up to the importer to provide evidence that there was no forced labor in product design.
This is the American path that MEPs seem to be taking.
Latent conflict within the commission
Despite Ursula von der Leyen’s design, the project could fail. Within the Commission itself, the Executive Vice President, Latvian Governor Valdis Dombrovskis, at the head of the Directorate General of Trade (DG), did everything in his power to mitigate the measures proposed by the President.
According to our colleagues from ReleaseDombrowskis has always considered this project to contravene the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which prohibit discriminatory actions against a particular country or region.
Initially, DG Trade wanted to include the concept of forced labor in a directive proposal requiring companies to ensure their products and activities comply with human rights and the environment. This could have led to the confiscation of incompatible products, without preventing their entry into the European market.
So, Ursula von der Leyen has balanced so that Valdis Dombrovskis will work with Thierry Breton, the French commissioner for the internal market, to find a compromise for September, which should be inspired by the decision of MEPs before the House of Representatives. Vote this Thursday.
China is clearly on the horizon
According to the European Commission, around 25 million people worldwide are in a situation of forced labour.
If China is not mentioned by Ursula von der Leyen in this regard, nor by a decision of MEPs, the communist country is regularly discriminated against over its policy against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province.
Many NGOs believe that these residents are forced to work in textile factories and in labor camps, and suffer abuse. Several countries, including the United States, are fomenting a “genocide”, while others accuse Beijing of having detained more than a million of them in political re-education centers since 2017.
What companies are affected?
In France, an investigation was opened last year for “concealing crimes against humanity” against Uniqlo France, the Japanese group Fast Retailing, Inditex (which owns the Zara, Bershka and Massimo Duti brands) and SMCP (Sandro, Maje, de Fursac… ) and Skechers athletic shoes. These brands are accused of profiting from forced labor of Uyghurs in China.
In 2020, many ready-to-wear companies, such as Sweden’s H&M, Japan’s Uniqlo, America’s Nike and Germany’s Adidas, nonetheless pledged to boycott cotton from Xinjiang, and were in turn targeted by calls for a boycott in China.
MEP Public Square Raphaël Glucksmann, deeply committed to the Uyghur cause, last January published a “list of shame” for more than 70 brands “accused of profiting from forced labor” from China’s Uighur minority. Among the brands mentioned: Apple, Bosch, Google, Nike, Nintendo, Volkswagen or even Victoria’s Secret…