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EU declares war on forced labor – and risks conflict with China


The EU is planning a strict ban on the import of everything that has been manufactured using forced labor – if necessary, even if there is reasonable suspicion. Resistance comes from the CDU.

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Child labor in Kenya: EU wants to ban products from forced labor


Brian Inganga/AP

Guy Ryder found clear words.

"We have become lax about forced labour," said the director of the UN's International Labor Organization (ILO).

The fight against "modern slavery" has not only come to a standstill, the situation has even worsened.

27.6 million people are living in forced labor worldwide, 2.7 million more than in 2016, according to an ILO report published on Monday.

Only hours later, the first drafts of a bill that is intended to significantly intensify the fight against forced labor leaked out in Brussels.

According to the current version available to SPIEGEL, the EU Commission wants to ban all products in the EU that were manufactured using forced labor.

It should not matter whether they were manufactured in the EU or imported, intended for the EU market or for export.

According to the draft, there should also be no exceptions for small and medium-sized companies.

After all, it's about products made from forced labor - no matter who made them.

Excluding smaller firms would weaken the law's effectiveness and create uncertainty.

Even the suspicion should suffice

The ordinance is a "drastic step," says SPD MEP René Repasi.

After all, what is at stake here is a ban on all products for which "one can see somewhere in the supply chain that forced labor was present".

This goes even further than the USA, which passed a law in December 2021 only against forced labor by Uyghurs in China.

The planned EU law is directed against forced labor in all countries, even in the EU itself.

However, both laws are similar in one respect: the authorities do not have to prove the use of forced labor meticulously for each individual product in order to be able to prohibit it.

Instead, a reasonable suspicion should suffice.

For the USA, for example, it is enough if something was produced in the Chinese province of Xinjiang or by certain manufacturers.

The EU Commission speaks of a »risk-based approach« in its proposal.

In a first phase, the competent authorities in the member countries are to determine the risks of forced labor on the basis of information from civil society or companies, for example.

In addition, the Commission wants to create a database on risk factors.

Should a suspicion arise, in a second phase the national authorities should request further information from companies or carry out tests and inspections.

In many cases - especially in countries with an already questionable human rights situation - this is likely to be difficult.

Therefore, according to the Commission's ideas, the authorities of the EU states should be able to withdraw a product from the EU market and ban imports and exports if they suspect forced labor to be strong enough.

Trouble threatens Beijing

"You can't check every product 100 percent," says Bernd Lange (SPD), head of the EU Parliament's influential foreign trade committee.

But it can be said, for example, that a product like Christmas tree decorations comes largely from China's Xinjiang province - where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are in re-education camps and also have to do forced labour.

In such cases, says Lange, "there will be changes in the value chains."

It can at least be doubted that the government in Beijing will put up with this without further ado.

"Of course there will be a reaction," says Lange.

But it will probably only be »rhetorical«.

“China cannot afford to shut down trade with the EU,” said Lange.

The mutual dependency is too great for that.

Another problem could be the availability of certain goods in the EU.

According to Lange, 60 percent of the blue disposable gloves often used in medicine come from Malaysia and are largely based on forced labor.

The new law would increase the pressure on manufacturers to improve local conditions, says the SPD politician.

If that doesn't happen, "then we'll just have to see where we can get the gloves from instead."

Anna Cavazzini, trade policy spokeswoman for the Greens in the EU Parliament, advocates a robust approach.

Millions of people around the world are forced to work, and the products often end up in EU supermarkets.

Consumers would thus become “involuntary accomplices”.

CDU calls for moratorium on EU laws

For Daniel Caspary, head of the CDU/CSU group in the European Parliament, the Commission's legislative initiative comes at the wrong time.

"In times of the greatest economic challenge for decades, we cannot negotiate a forced labor ordinance, despite all the necessity," says Caspary.

The same applies to the supply chain law proposed by the EU Commission in February, with which the Brussels authority wants to enforce human rights and environmental protection worldwide.

"We have to tackle the issues," says Caspary, "but not now." He calls for a general moratorium on EU laws that "make economic activity more difficult."

However, it will still be years before the new regulation takes effect - even if it is an EU regulation that applies immediately and does not have to be transposed into national law by the member states.

First, the European Parliament and the Council of Member States must determine their positions, which could take time.

Because the European Parliament had already called for an even stricter law against forced labor in a resolution in June.

For example, the parliamentarians wanted companies to have to prove that they were not profiting from forced labour.

"I can imagine that Parliament wants to sharpen things up further at this point," says Green Party politician Cavazzini.

It is likely to be early next year before MEPs have finalized their position for negotiations with the Commission and the Council of Member States.

The latter, too, has yet to find a common stance.

The same applies to the federal government.

From the Ministry of Economic Affairs it is said that the EU Commission was supported in its proposal for the forced labor regulation.

The set of rules will now go into departmental coordination within the government.

But the proposal is generally positive

The negotiations between Parliament, Council and Commission on the final law will then take another few months.

Once it has entered into force, two more years should elapse before it is applied.

Source: spiegel

All news articles on 2022-09-13

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