June 23. 2024. 1:20

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Progress on forced labour products ban too slow, says leading rapporteur

The Swedish Presidency’s progress on the regulation to prohibit products made with forced labour from the EU is “good news, but not enough”, according to the European Parliament’s co-rapporteur on the file, Maria-Manuel Leitão-Marques.

The co-rapporteur urged Stockholm to speed up its work before its term at the helm of the EU Council ends in June.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are starting their work on the EU Commission’s proposal for a ban on the import and export of products tainted by human rights abuses, presented in September 2022.

The draft law would apply to all goods made in the EU, imported into the EU or exported from the EU through a risk-based approach to identify certain areas and sectors for investigation. If a product is found to be made with forced labour, it will be disposed of by national authorities, unless companies prove they eliminated forced labour from their supply chains.

Social-democrat MEP Leitão-Marques, a rapporteur on the file in the internal market and consumer protection committee (IMCO), said the Parliament aims to close the file by February 2024, before the European elections next year, meaning that a compromise agreement with member states would have to be found by then.

“We need the Council to match this level of ambition,” she said, adding, “We are concerned with their current slow progress on the forced labour file.”

Slow progress

According to diplomats from three different EU member states, the Swedish Presidency of the EU Council is deprioritising the work on the ban in the working party responsible for coming up with the negotiation position of member states, as previously reported by EURACTIV.

“At the moment, yes, Forced Labour is a bit on hold,” one diplomat said, arguing that there were many other files that had to be treated with priority.

An official from the Swedish Presidency told EURACTIV that their ambition is to assess the articles of the proposal. If this timeline is confirmed, the Spanish Presidency, which will start in July, will need to work fast to reach a general approach among member states in the EU Council and then make sure that the EU Council and the EU Parliament come to an agreement on the file ahead of the European elections in 2024.

“It’s good news, but not enough,” Leitão-Marques told EURACTIV, reacting to the expected progress on the file under the Swedish Presidency.

On the Parliament’s side, the rapporteur said the aim is to change the proposal marginally and speed up work.

“We are trying to surgically change the proposal because this is a good proposal and because we need to approve it before the [end of the] term,” she said.

The MEP said she hoped to have the committee vote on the report in September and a plenary vote in October.

An enforceable ban

At the same time, Leitão-Marques said the Parliament will need to improve some aspects of the ban, in particular its enforceability.

According to the original proposal, the ban’s enforcement will fall on national authorities appointed by member states and charged with investigating products suspected of forced labour. Investigations will be based on information gathered from various sources, including NGOs, and will prioritise high-risk regions and sectors.

National authorities will also need to dispose of the products found to have been made with forced labour at any stage of their production or distribution.

The rapporteur, however, said that placing the implementation burden fully on national authorities might limit the efficacy of the regulation due to possible differences in enforcement across the Union, and suggested shifting to a more European approach.

A similar concern was voiced by MEP Bernd Lange, chair of the trade committee, when the proposal was unveiled.

To ensure companies and member states are ready to implement the regulation, she said the EU should provide guidelines as soon as possible.

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A victim-centred approach?

Meanwhile, some MEPs and civil society organisations are pushing for a more victim-centred approach to the regulation, which does not include remedial measures for workers affected by forced labour practices.

Members of the development committee discussed their position on the proposal in March, pointing to the need to put victims at the centre of the ban with remediation for affected workers.

However, Leitão-Marques said, “As IMCO rapporteur, my objective, of course, is to try to make the proposal enforceable by authorities and simplify its application, because, at the end of the day, a good law is an effective one.”

At the same time, the rapporteur said EU lawmakers were looking at ways to introduce remediation in the proposal. One option could see compensation for affected workers as a condition to reverse the decision to withdraw products from the market from a certain producer or supplier previously affected by the ban.

“This is a way to associate the workers to the benefits of the ban,” she said. “Not only are we going to ban the imports, but we are also going to compensate the workers who produced them.”

Civil society organisations are also calling to shift the burden of proof on the companies, rather than national authorities.

According to Leitão-Marques, the reversal could be possible for certain products from “certain areas where we have enough evidence to suspect systematic [forced labour].”

This approach would make the ban more similar to the US’s Uyghur Forced Labor law, which requires companies to prove products from the Chinese region of Xinjiang are not tainted by forced labour.

EU imports from Xinjiang rose by 34% in 2022

Exports from the Chinese province of Xinjiang to EU countries increased by 34% last year, data from the Chinese Customs Office shows, pitting the EU’s drive to uphold human rights and eradicate forced labour against the need for imported goods.

János Allenbach-Ammann contributed to the reporting.