On 16 October 2023, the responsible committees of the EU Parliament overwhelmingly adopted their position on the planned ban of products made in forced labour on the Union market. In addition, MEPs propose significant improvements and advocate for compensation for forced labourers and a reversal of the burden of proof. It is now important to ensure that the negotiations in the Council also proceed quickly so that the legal act can be adopted before the end of this legislative term.
Around 28 million people worldwide are in forced labour. To stop this, the EU Parliament already adopted a resolution in June 2022 with an almost unanimous majority for a ban on products from forced labour. Subsequently, the EU Commission presented a Proposal for a Regulation in September 2022. Since then, negotiations in the Council have progressed very slowly. In contrast, the European Parliament has started work without delay. Since the planned product ban affects both products manufactured within the EU internal market and imported products, the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) with rapporteur Maria-Manuel Leitão-Marques (S&D) and the Committee on International Trade (INTA) with rapporteur Samira Rafaela (Renew) are jointly in charge.
“Historic” European Parliament vote
On 16 October 2023, IMCO and INTA held a joint meeting to adopt their report on the proposed ban of products produced in forced labour on the Union market. The vote was described as "historic" for two reasons: firstly, it was pointed out that some 100 years after the signing of ILO Convention 29 concerning the prohibition of forced labour, an effective instrument to combat forced labour is being created at EU level for the first time. Secondly, the great unity of the EU Parliament was pointed out: the IMCO/INTA report was adopted unanimously. With 10 abstentions, 66 committee members voted in favour. The amendments contain essential improvements to the EU Commission's Proposal for a Regulation and are to be welcomed from AK’s point of view.
European Parliament wants compensation for forced labourers and reversal of burden of proof
The Proposal requires products from forced labour to be withdrawn from the market. The products will be seized by the authorities and cannot be sold, imported or exported within the internal market. Furthermore, according to the Proposal, a product ban imposed by the authorities must be revoked if proof is provided that forced labour has stopped. The European Parliament, on the other hand, demands that a product ban may only be lifted when the forced labourers concerned have received compensation. The perspective of those affected is completely missing from the Commission Proposal. The amendment adopted by the European Parliament is therefore pivotal from AK’s point of view.
The reversal of the burden of proof decided by the European Parliament is also essential. According to the Proposal of the EU Commission, the authorities must carry out detailed investigations and may only impose a product ban in case of proven forced labour. However, from AK’s point of view, the burden of proof should not be the responsibility of authorities. Rather, companies should have to prove that forced labour does not exist (reversal of the burden of proof). The European Parliament demands a reversal of the burden of proof at least in cases of state-imposed forced labour. Another demand by the European Parliament concerns the responsibility to carry out investigations and impose product bans. Thus, in addition to the national competent authorities, the EU Commission should be made "the 28th authority".
Deadlines too short
In the run-up to the vote on 16 October 2023, AK, together with trade unions and NGOs, conveyed important demands on the proposed Regulation to IMCO/INTA members in an open letter. Encouragingly, some points were taken up. However, from AK’s point of view, there is also a fly in the ointment: While the Commission Proposal provides that an authority must decide within a "reasonable period" after the initiation of the investigation whether it will impose a product ban or discontinue the procedure, IMCO/INTA only wants to grant it 90 days. This period is far too short. Authorities must - with the exception of the above-mentioned special regulation in the case of state-imposed forced labour - provide evidence that forced labour exists. In many cases, this will not be possible within three months; hence, a longer period is absolutely required.
On the occasion of the IMCO/INTA vote, the European Parliament's co-rapporteurs drew attention to the situation of Uyghur women in China who are forced into state-imposed forced labour, for example on fishing vessels. They appealed to the Council to step up the pace. Following the overwhelming majority in IMCO/INTA, the European Parliament is expected to endorse the report in plenary. Once the Council has determined its position, the trilogue negotiations can begin. The aim is to adopt the regulation before the European Parliament elections in June 2024.
AK EUROPA: Open Letter on the Forced Labour Regulation
AK EUROPA: Proposal on EU ban on products made with forced labour
AK EUROPA: Prohibiting products made with forced labour on the Union market
EU Commission moves to ban products made with forced labour
EU Parliament: Resolution on a new trade instrument to ban products made by forced labour