The EU must ban forced labour products and uphold human rights

To prevent forced labour, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) emphasises the importance of international cooperation and the institutional anchoring of organised civil society in the Commission's new proposal. The Committee recommends guidelines to assist companies, a specific database with risk indicators and a benchmarking system.

To fight all forms of forced or compulsory labour and make the EU a world's leader on human rights. With this message in mind, the EESC's January plenary session adopted the opinion on Forced labour products ban drawn up by Thomas Wagnsonner.

In the document, the Committee backs the European Commission's proposal for a regulation prohibiting products made with forced labour on the Union market, stressing that it is key that all EU Member States ratify the 2014 Protocol to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Forced Labour Convention 1930.

The EESC is also happy to note that the fight against forced child labour has been included in the proposal and calls to speed up this process by including existing ILO conventions on child labour in the scope of the regulation.

Commenting on the adoption of the opinion, Mr Wagnsonner said: The promotion of economic, social, cultural and labour rights and therefore the eradication of all forms of forced labour and exploitation is crucial to secure in particular the EU's global leadership on human rights and democracy.

Preventing the risk of forced labour

According to the EESC, it is vital to support companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), to identify, prevent, mitigate or bring to an end the risk of forced labour in their operations and value chains.

Issuing guidelines to assist companies is a fundamental measure and they should be published upon the entry into force of the proposed regulation.

The core instrument of the ban should be a database, highlighting precise and transparent risk indicators based on – but not limited to – the origin and components of a product and other relevant information.

To ensure effective enforcement, the database should contain detailed information about the product, manufacturer, importer, origin and components, along with the resources and minerals used in the product and its components.

The database has to be kept updated also with new information stemming from investigation processes and, in the name of transparency, it should be open and accessible by companies, competent authorities, organised civil society and the general public.

In order to make the database efficient, the Committee suggests introducing benchmarking, based on a rating system for regions and sectors down to product groups, products and companies, presenting high and low risk, referring to the information put together in the database by experts.

The EESC also asks the Commission to study the feasibility of an EU Public Rating Agency in charge of assessing environmental and social sustainability, as well as human rights, when doing business. Such an organisation should be tasked with developing EU standards for "due diligence" requirements and systems, which could contribute to the creation of a level playing field between European companies and would be in their primary interest.

International cooperation and strong civil society networks are crucial

The problem of forced labour can only be solved with strong cooperation at international level. One of the leading causes is the practise of maximising profits at the cost of failing to uphold human rights, therefore the roots of the issue have to be addressed broadly and the Commission's proposed regulation could represent valuable progress in laying global foundations.

The EU should step up efforts in this direction and support a binding UN treaty on business and human rights, also considering contributing to a possible ILO convention on decent work in supply chains. In order to ensure proper implementation, cooperation and exchange of information with third countries and international organisations would be essential.

At national level, organised civil society has a central role to play in combating all forms of forced or compulsory labour. The social partners and NGOs are strategically well-placed to provide institutional engagement and sustainability, and their institutional anchoring in the new legislation, in the future implementation process at all levels of the supply chain, is of critical importance.

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