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EU to ban forced-labour products in move mostly targeted at China

A worker packages spools of cotton yarn at a textile manufacturing plant, as seen during a government organized trip for foreign journalists, in Aksu in China's Xinjiang
A worker packages spools of cotton yarn at a textile manufacturing plant, as seen during a government organized trip for foreign journalists, in Aksu in China's Xinjiang Copyright Mark Schiefelbein/Copyright 2021 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Mark Schiefelbein/Copyright 2021 The AP. All rights reserved
By Mared Gwyn JonesPaula Soler
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The European Parliament has approved sweeping new rules designed to stamp out products tainted with forced labour from the EU market.

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The new law - approved on Tuesday with 555 votes in favour, 6 against and 45 abstentions - is designed to clean up both the bloc’s import and export markets from links to modern slavery and human rights abuses.

Despite applying to products manufactured anywhere in the world, the law is seen as a deliberate move against countries such as Turkmenistan or China, where there is reported evidence of state-sponsored forced labour.

Under the new regulation rubber-stamped on Tuesday and expected to come into force in 2027 pending final approval of member states, national authorities will be able to launch investigations into products with suspected links to forced labour, and ban such products from the EU market.

In case of suspicions related to countries outside the bloc, the European Commission will be able to initiate probes, and call on third country governments to conduct inspections on the suspected cases of slave labour.

Products made from forced labour found to be already on the EU market will be donated, recycled or destroyed, and companies failing to enforce the rules will face proportionate and dissuasive fines, to be defined by the member states.

“This will strengthen our market, protect companies and consumers, but mainly it will protect human lives,” leading liberal MEP Samira Rafaela told Euronews in an interview.

The move aims to curb a worrying trend of cheap products made from forced labour permeating throughout the EU market, as well as an increase in the number of people in forced labour and a boom in illegal profits over the past decade.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that at least 28 million people around the world are in a situation of forced labour, generating a total of $236 billion (€217 billion) a year.

A recent report found links between dozens of major European clothing brands and forced labour in detention camps in China’s Xinjiang region, where there is documented evidence of systemic abuses against Uyghurs and other minority ethnic groups.

The report concluded that brands such as Sweden-based H&M and Zara - a Spanish multinational - could be sourcing materials made by Uyghurs in the notorious detention camps in Xinjiang, the province which accounts for an estimated 90% of Chinese cotton and some 20% of world supply.

In the US, a 2021 law bans goods manufactured in Xinjiang, with importers legally obliged to provide evidence any products linked to the region are made without forced labour.

Last year, US lawmakers launched an investigation into Chinese-owned retail giants Shein and Temu - which have seen immense growth in the EU market - as well as Adidas and Nike for potential links to Uyghur forced labour.

First tabled by the Commission in September 2022, the EU bill has faced multiple hurdles and long delays, with many fearing it would not be wrapped up in the current mandate.

But a speedy deal was struck between the parliament and EU capitals in early March, allowing the hemicycle to give its green light during this week’s marathon final sitting before June’s European elections.

Criticism from some camps

The plans have received broad support cutting across political groups. But critics, notably Germany’s liberal, pro-business FDP party, have argued the law will bring excessive bureaucracy and weigh down on businesses.

Concerns over potential disruptions to the supply of critical raw materials also stalled negotiations. Links between forced labour in China’s Xinjiang and the solar industry sparked fears the law could lead to shortages in so-called ‘sensitive’ components needed in Europe’s energy transition.

In a compromise between capitals and the parliament, national authorities can ask companies that provide “critical products” to withhold their products until they can demonstrate no more links to forced labour in their operations, essentially delaying the bans.

On the other hand, civil society organisations have also flagged some limitations of the new regulation, as it does not include an obligation to provide remediation for victims as a condition to lift a ban on a product.

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“Workers affected by forced labour will remain vulnerable without an explicit obligation to remedy harm,” Sian Lea, Business and Human Rights manager at Anti-Slavery International, told Euronews, arguing that without low evidentiary thresholds, it will be difficult for workers to bring up complaints against abusing companies.

NGOs also regret that there is no presumption of state-imposed forced labour in high-risk areas and sectors where there is evidence of slave labour.

The regulation is "weak" in those cases, says advocacy group Clean Clothes Campaign: "Our mind goes to the Uyghurs population: one could doubt whether this regulation will actually have an impact on their lives".

Instead of presumptions or regional bans, the EU Commission will have to draw up a list of those areas and sectors and an online platform will be set up for stakeholders to check all available information.

“These new rules should not just be a paper tiger,” said Steve Trent, CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF).

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“Member states and European institutions must do everything within their power to ensure they are robustly implemented and enforced,” he added.

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