Why Canada Needs to Stand Against Forced Labour in Supply Chains


In 2014, three Eritrean refugees filed a lawsuit in Canada against Nevsun Resources Ltd. They accused the mining company, headquartered in Vancouver, BC, of being complicit in the use of forced labour during the construction of a mine in which Nevsun holds a 60 percent majority ownership. 

The Bisha Mine in question is located in Eritrea, a country controlled by what Human Rights Watch calls “one of the world’s most oppressive governments.” Ruled by Isaias Afwerki, who’s been in power for 25 years, Eritreans are obliged to serve 18 months in national service, but many are forced to serve indefinitely with no safe reporting mechanism for voicing their grievances, leaving thousands in arbitrary detention.

In Canada, the three Eritrean refugees claim they were forced to work on the Bisha Mine by Segen Construction, a company owned by the Eritrean ruling party and hired by Nevsun to build the mine. The case is now headed to the Supreme Court of Canada as Nevsun appealed on the grounds that the lawsuits should be heard in Eritrea. Nevsun’s appeals have been rejected so far, since any Eritrean hearings would not be independent from the government. 

This is the first lawsuit in Canada based on abuses of international human rights law, and the case clearly shows the need for a Canada-wide regulatory structure that enables Canadian courts to address labour rights breaches that take place abroad. 

Despite global rallying around the cause—and because Canadians consumed up to $34 billion worth of products that were possibly made by child and slave labour in 2016—Canada risks falling behind. Florists supply

In June 2011, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council unanimously passed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The principles outline obligations for state governments and businesses to have standards for respecting human rights and freedoms—specifically in preventing forced labour and modern slavery—in their supply chains. 

The UN Guiding Principles represent a platform for coordinated multilateral action on regulation of businesses in the field of forced labour, and a growing number of governments around the world are taking legal action to ensure the accountability and commitment of businesses in addressing forced labour in their supply chains.

The Canadian House of Commons recently tasked the Subcommittee on International Human Rights to investigate and study the issue of firms using forced labour in their supply chains, seeking input from Canadian civil society groups, non-governmental organizations, industry associations, politicians, and government officials. 

While the process has brought together multiple stakeholders, the subcommittee is missing some crucial regulatory goals, and I suggest the following be considered for Canada’s human rights regulations:

  1. Companies should provide clear and accessible information on supply chains used to create their products. This should include details on where raw materials and intermediate goods are produced, by whom, and who they are sold to. Access to this information is even more important for products with complex supply chains. 
  2. Canada should provide immediate and automatic protection for foreign workers who claim human rights abuses by Canadian firms. The three plaintiffs in the Nevsun case have been granted refugee status in Canada—however, this is presently a case-by-case decision rather than routine practice.
  3. The subcommittee should look more thoroughly into company audits and consider establishing an independent regulator to ensure supply chain transparency. Nevsun's audits, for example, found nothing wrong at the Bisha Mine, stating that “there is no forced labour in the Eritrean mining sector.”

voloWhile the Nevsun case will get its due process in the Supreme Court, possibly setting a new precedent for other similar claims, this type of scrutiny in the interest of protecting human rights and freedoms has a long way to becoming the norm. 

In the meantime, while the Canadian House of Commons determines its policy on the issue, Canadian consumers can support the cause by looking for products that are certified by organizations such as Fairtrade International, which take a robust market-based approach to regulation. 

Any product bearing the Fairtrade Mark has been sourced from a producer organization that has undergone rigorous auditing by the FLO-Cert system, which follows transparent, independent, and globally consistent standards. This ensures, among many things, adherence to strict labour protections and a fair price paid to producers.

Canada, it’s time to innovate—and not just follow the footsteps of others—in keeping up our reputation as a global human rights champion. Most businesses have not and will not regulate themselves. 

Author: Sarah Heim is in her last year of International Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, where she also heads the International Studies Student Association and sits on the board of the Canadian International Council.

Originally published in Fair Trade Magazine - Summer/Fall 2018 Edition