EU pursues trade bans for forced labour

Anna Triponel

March 11, 2022
Our key takeaway: The European Commission has sent a clear message in its Communication on Decent Work Worldwide: the EU wants to champion decent work, both at home and around the world, and this will entail a wide variety of tools, from regulation to trade policy to international engagement. In particular, the ban on products made by forced labour from entering the EU market, previously announced by President von der Leyen in her State of the Union address 2021, is moving ahead.

On the same day as the release of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence (which we talk about here and here), the European Commission released its Communication on Decent Work Worldwide (available for download here), “reaffirm[ing] the EU’s commitment to champion decent work both at home and around the world”:

  • Decent work is at the heart of economic recovery, but “is still not a reality for many people around the world”: Nearly 25 million people globally are in conditions of forced labour, including children. Women and girls are especially vulnerable, comprising 63% of people in forced labour. Child labour numbers similarly reveal the extent of the global challenge for decent work. While the number of children in child labour decreased from 245.5 million to 151.6 million between 2000 and 2016, emerging crises are quickly driving this number back up: “the number of children in child labour has increased by more than 8 million between 2016 and 2020, inverting the previous positive trend. At the same time, the global COVID-19 pandemic and transformations in the world of work, including through technological advances, the climate crisis, demographic changes and globalisation, can have an impact on labour standards and workers’ protection.” The vast majority of children work in the agricultural sector (70%), with 19.7% in services and 10.3% in industry.
  • Trade ban for forced labour in the works, coupled with other measures: The European Commission is “preparing a new legislative initiative, which will effectively prohibit the placing on the EU market of products made by forced labour, including forced child labour. The initiative will cover both domestic and imported products and combine a ban with a robust, risk-based enforcement framework. The new instrument will build on international standards and complement existing horizontal and sectoral EU initiatives, in particular the due diligence and transparency obligations.” The legislation would sit alongside other key measures to promote social and environmental sustainability and embed decent work in value chains, including the recent Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, EU Sustainable Finance Strategy, Circular Economy Action Plan, and upcoming initiatives on EU consumer policies. The EU is also planning for and implementing sector-specific policies where workers are at particular risk, including in agriculture, minerals, textiles, transport and fishing. The EU will also promote decent work beyond its borders through trade policy, bilateral and regional agreements, EU enlargement and neighbourhood policies, and more.
  • Tackling child labour from multiple angles: The European Commission recognises that the complexity of factors contributing to child labour mean that this issue requires special attention, “including broad-based measures and adequately funded initiatives to support quality education, decent income and social protection for all.” To that end, the Commission is leveraging diverse tools to get at root and systemic causes. This includes “promoting human rights and environmental due diligence by companies, including through legislation … along global supply chains”; preventing products made with forced labour from reaching EU markets; “[s]trengthening companies’ disclosure of information on sustainability aspects, including on decent work in global supply chains”; and ensuring “socially sustainable public procurement and making sustainable products the norm to enhance fair consumption.”

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