With its September 2022 proposal to ban products made with forced labour, the Commission is addressing an important issue. The number of people working in forced labour worldwide are dramatic and require urgent action. However, in order to effectively combat forced labour, the Commission's proposal does not go far enough and needs to be improved, as a new AK EUROPA position paper shows.
Forced labour has risen sharply in recent years
According to recent ILO estimates, around 28 million people are in forced labour worldwide, including more than 3 million children. Shockingly, forced labour has even been on the rise in recent years: 2.7 million more people were in forced labour in 2022 than 5 years earlier. Forced labour has two main interrelated characteristics: First, the lack of consent to take up the work or to the conditions of work; and second, the use of coercion, such as a penalty or the threat of a penalty, to prevent a person from escaping or otherwise forcing them to work.
Contents of the Commission's proposal
The proposed Regulation now provides for the prohibition of products produced by forced labour on the Union market. The ban is to apply to the placing on the market and making available within the EU, as well as to exports. The ban would apply to both imported and EU-manufactured products. The proposal is cross-sectoral and applies to all operators, with no SME exemption. Products made with forced labour are to be withdrawn from circulation. The national authorities of the Member States as well as the customs authorities are to be responsible for enforcement.
AK demands improvement
AK had already contributed to the topic in advance and therefore welcomes the present proposal of the Commission. However, as now set out in a new AK EUROPA Position Paper, improvements are necessary in many areas: Among other, the scope of the Regulation would also have to be extended to freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, as they are of central importance for the fight against forced labour. Moreover, the proposal does not address the situation of workers affected by forced labour in any way. AK demands here that compensation for the affected workers be included in the regulation. Trade unions and NGOs must also be better involved, for example in the context of the planned establishment of a database on the risk of forced labour and an EU network against products made with forced labour.
For the regulation to actually work in practice, it would also be important for products to be detained during the investigation and not - as envisaged in the proposal - to continue to circulate freely on the market. Economic operators would also have to be obliged to provide information, for example on producers and product suppliers. Without information, it is to be feared that customs authorities will in many cases not be able to determine whether a ban has already been imposed on a product. Finally, the scope of product bans must be extended to include not only individual products, but also products from a specific production site or - in the case of state-imposed forced labour - from a specific region.
What happens next?
Now it is up to EU Parliament and Council to improve the Commission's proposal. In the Council, the Swedish Presidency is planning a progress report on this topic in May 2023. In the EU Parliament, several committees will deal with the topic under the leadership of the Internal Market Committee (rapporteur Maria-Manuel Leitão Marques, S&D Group).