Canada must make sure its rules against forced labour are actually enforced

When it comes to barring products made by forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region, the Trudeau government says all the right things.

Where it falls down is in actually making sure that its own policies are enforced in practice.

At this point there’s not much doubt that China’s repression of the Uyghur people in remote Xinjiang includes the use of forced labour, among many other abuses that are part of Beijing’s crackdown on that Muslim minority.

A string of reports from human rights groups, the BBC, and advocates for the Uyghurs themselves agree that China uses forced labour, involving possibly hundreds of thousands of workers, as part of what it calls its “labour transfer program” in the region. The Canadian government itself supports that assessment.

And, on paper at least, Canada’s policy is clear, indeed admirable: goods produced “in whole or in part” by forced labour must not be imported into this country.

A general rule to that effect came into force last July, part of changes to the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement, renegotiated at the insistence of the Trump administration. And Ottawa, along with Britain, followed that up in January with a series of measures specifically targeted at imports from Xinjiang.

If all that was being followed by companies importing goods from China, and enforced by Ottawa, there wouldn’t be a problem. But there’s mounting evidence it isn’t being enforced, at least not effectively.

Earlier this year, the Star and the Guelph Mercury Tribune published a joint investigation that found nearly 400 shipments had gone to Canadian companies since 2018 from Chinese manufacturers identified by the U.S. government as employers of forced Uyghur labour.

The government’s explanation for the apparent flouting of its own laws and policies? Officials in charge say they are still researching and monitoring “problematic” supply chains involving products imported from China to verify whether they really can be traced back to Beijing’s repressive practices.

That’s an awfully weak response in the face of China’s documented violations of basic human rights, and its open contempt for the Trudeau government.

That’s long been evident in its arbitrary imprisonment of the two Canadians held in reprisal for the extradition proceedings against a Chinese telecom executive in Vancouver. And it only got worse this week with a Chinese diplomat’s insulting dismissal of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a mere “boy” acting as a “running dog” of Washington.

In the face of all that, there’s no reason for Canada to tread softly in enforcing its rules against importing Chinese goods produced with forced labour.