The European Commission, the legislative arm of the European Union, released a 60-page proposal Wednesday that would ban products made by forced labor, a measure to stop goods tainted with forced labor from entering and exiting the union’s market.
The proposed regulation was published one year after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen introduced the initiative in her 2021 State of the Union speech.
“The proposal covers all products, namely those made in the EU for domestic consumption and exports, and imported goods, without targeting specific companies or industries,” the European Commission said in a statement.
The release of the proposal follows a new U.S. law called the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), which bans products made with forced labor from Xinjiang, a western Uyghur region in China. Enforcement of the U.S. legislation began in June.
While the European Commission’s forced labor proposal is generally similar to the U.S. law, it does not specify a region such as Xinjiang. Instead, the proposal is much broader and applies to all products made globally, including from within the EU’s borders.
Some critics say the European version is weak because it lacks a clear procedure for an entire industry, and it does not have a targeted regional ban, said Koen Stoop, EU representative of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress.
“The draft text raises concern about whether the proposal is meaningfully drafted to address state-imposed forced labor (such as Uyghur forced labor),” Stoop told VOA in an email. “We hope amendments will be made to strengthen the regulation.”
The proposal seeks to address the problem of forced labor globally, stating, “The use of forced labor is widespread in the world. It is estimated that about 27.6 million people were in forced labor in 2021.”
“This proposal will make a real difference in tackling modern-day slavery, which affects millions of people around the globe. Our aim is to eliminate all products made with forced labor from the EU market, irrespective of where they have been made. Our ban will apply to domestic products, exports and imports alike,” said Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission’s executive vice president and commissioner for trade.
Rights groups expect the legislative process from proposal to adoption to be a lengthy one since the European Parliament and the council need to agree on a final text.
“There is no time limit on the ‘first reading’ at the Parliament and council, so it depends on how fast they can reach an agreement, both amongst and between themselves,” Stoop told VOA. “This usually takes at least a year. But even when the law is adopted, it will take two years to enter into force. So, taken together, it will take at least three years for the ban to start being enforced.”
Each EU member state will implement the law by assessing forced labor risks based on many different sources of information.
“These may include submissions from civil society, a database of forced labor risks focusing on specific products and geographic areas, and the due diligence that companies carry out,” stated the European Commission.
“Competent authorities and customs will work hand in hand to make the system robust. We have sought to minimize the administrative burden for businesses, with a tailor-made approach” for small and midsized enterprises, Dombrovskis said. “We will also further deepen our cooperation with our global partners and with international organizations.”
China and forced labor accusations
While China is not singled out by the EU proposal, the United States, the United Nations and rights groups have accused China of using Uyghur forced labor and have said Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang constitutes crimes against humanity. Rights groups hope the European Commission’s proposal will specifically address Uyghur forced labor.
“We're certainly encouraged by steps taken by the commission, and we want to see a proposal that's up for the task when it comes to combating forced labor in the Uyghur region,” Peter Irwin, senior program officer for advocacy and communications at the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project, told VOA in an email. “The law needs to include procedures to compel companies to remove this kind of state-imposed forced labor from their supply chains.”
China has repeatedly denied accusations of forced labor as U.S.-propagated “lies of the century” designed to use criticism over Xinjiang to contain China.
On Thursday, in response to the EU proposal, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told reporters in Beijing, “There’s no so-called 'forced labor' in China. We firmly oppose using the so-called ‘forced labor’ or any Xinjiang-related issue to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
Activists outside China, however, see the proposal as a boon for Uyghurs who live in China.
“This resolution adds to the growing economic pressure on the Chinese government to dismantle its system of state-sponsored forced labor in the Uyghur region, as well as to end corporate complicity in these abuses,” said Jewher Ilham, forced labor project coordinator at the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium.
By banning products made with forced labor, Ilham told VOA, the EU aligns its market with global standards and other legislatures.