Thanks very much for the opportunity to speak with you today to discuss child and forced labour in global supply chains. We really welcome the Government of Canada's interest in taking further action to address these abuses.
Today I thought I would give you a brief overview of the research that Human Rights Watch has done on child and forced labour, our assessment of the current state of standards and legislation related to supply chains and human rights, and then also provide a few recommendations for the Canadian government as you consider your course of action.
First of all, Human Rights Watch has conducted research on child and forced labour in global supply chains for over two decades. We've interviewed thousands of workers, employers, government officials, and other affected individuals in the context of global supply chains in agriculture, the garment and footwear industry, fishing, mining, and construction.
I'll start with our work on child labour. We have documented hazardous child labour associated with a range of crops and products that are sold on the international market, including sugar cane from El Salvador, bananas from Ecuador, cotton from Egypt and Uzbekistan, and fruits and vegetables from the United States and from Israel.
We found children working very gruelling hours with sharp tools and heavy machinery. We found they were exposed to toxic pesticides and extreme heat. Of course, agriculture is one of the most hazardous sectors of work for children, and it involves 70% of the children who are currently engaged in child labour worldwide.
In recent years, Human Rights Watch has also focused on hazardous child labour in the tobacco sector. We have conducted research in the United States, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe, where children face added risk of nicotine poisoning because of their exposure to the tobacco plants. The majority of the children we interviewed experienced nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness. These are all symptoms that are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. The tobacco these children are cultivating and harvesting enters the supply chain of major cigarette manufacturers that sell their products all over the world.
An estimated one million children also work in mining, which is another very hazardous form of child labour. Human Rights Watch has documented child labour in small-scale gold mining in Ghana, the Philippines, Tanzania, and Mali.
One of the most serious concerns we found is that children often process gold with mercury, a highly toxic substance that can cause brain damage and other lifelong health conditions. They also risk their lives when they climb down unstable shafts that may collapse at any moment. Most of the gold they mine is used for the international jewellery market, which generates $300 billion a year in revenues.
On forced labour, since 2016, Human Rights Watch has interviewed nearly 250 current and former workers in Thailand's fishing industry, and we found that many of them described forced labour situations. Some workers found their employment voluntarily, but then, once they were on the fishing boats, they were not allowed to leave and were held in forced labour. We documented deception regarding the terms of their employment, the seizure of identity documents, inability to change employers, recruitment fees that often placed the workers into debt bondage, and excessive work hours that often exceeded 18 hours a day and in a few cases went as high as 23 hours a day. We found unlawful wage withholding systems that required workers to put in six months or even up to two years of work before they would receive their salary in a lump sum.
We've also documented forced labour in large-scale construction and engineering projects in the Middle East, including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf States. We found that many of these construction workers are migrants who are often tied to abusive employers through the kafala, or sponsorship system. Their passports are often systematically confiscated, and many workers are charged with extortionate recruitment fees that create crushing debts that they have to pay off.
Finally, we have also documented abusive labour practices in the apparel industry, particularly in Bangladesh and Cambodia. We have documented how many apparel workers experience forced overtime.
In Cambodia, we found that workers who refused to work overtime were often dismissed, faced reductions in their wages, or were subjected to punitive transfers. The majority of the women whom we talked to in these factories were working far in excess of 60 hours a week. In Bangladesh, we interviewed more than 160 workers from 44 different factories. Most of them were making garments for retail companies in North America, Europe, and Australia. We found that workers reported physical assault, verbal abuse, forced overtime, and failure to pay wages and bonuses.
That gives you a sense of our research. Now I want to address briefly our assessment of current standards and legislation related to supply chains and these human rights abuses.
International norms such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights recognize that companies should undertake human rights due diligence to ensure that their operations respect human rights and do not contribute to human rights abuses, but these international standards are generally not legally binding. As a consequence, we've found in our work that some companies take them seriously, but many do not.
As we work with companies, whether they're construction firms, multinational tobacco or garment companies, or jewellery retailers, we find a number of common problems. These include weak human rights policies, insufficient assessment and monitoring of risks in their supply chains, weaknesses in preventing or mitigating human rights abuses, insufficient monitoring, and lack of public reporting on the steps they're taking to address these abuses.
As part of my own work at Human Rights Watch, for the last number of years I've been particularly engaging with multinational tobacco and jewellery companies to look at their supply chains. In that context, we've also looked at industry-led initiatives to try to address child labour and other human rights abuses. What we've seen is that some of them are meaningful, but many are not. Just by coincidence, this morning I was meeting with the executives of a major multinational tobacco company. During our meeting, one of the executives said he could get a certificate on anything today. He could pay off his guilt, but it doesn't mean anything. I think this speaks very clearly to the challenges of industries policing themselves when it comes to addressing human rights abuses.
Ultimately, the primary responsibility for upholding human rights lies with governments. We've seen that when states impose mandatory human rights due diligence, company transparency has improved. Some of the existing models include the Dodd-Frank act in the United States, the U.K. Modern Slavery Act, the French due diligence law, and the transparency act in California. Of course other countries, such as the Netherlands and Australia, have also been considering legislation.
We find some limitations with existing laws. Some, for example, focus on very narrow thematic issues—just slavery and human trafficking or just conflict minerals—but will exclude other important human rights and labour issues. Some of these laws have no penalties for non-compliance. For example, in the U.K., NGOs have found that only about 14% of the companies that have submitted reports under the Modern Slavery Act have complied with basic reporting requirements, but the law carries no penalties for this non-compliance. In contrast, the French due diligence law includes a provision for injunctive relief if companies do not comply with their due diligence, and this is a positive model. Finally, some of the laws apply only to companies with revenues over a certain threshold. For example, the U.K. Modern Slavery Act applies only to companies with an annual turnover of more than 36 million pounds, and the proposed law under consideration in Australia sets an even higher threshold of $100 million Australian.
With all of this as a backdrop, we certainly welcome Canada's interest in looking more closely at these issues, and we would encourage the Canadian government to introduce legislation that would require companies, both headquartered in Canada and doing business in Canada, to address forced and child labour and other human rights abuses in their supply chain.
From our point of view, such legislation could have four key components.
One, it would require transparency, including identifying and publishing the entities along the supply chain.
Two, it would require mandatory due diligence, including steps to identify, prevent, mitigate, and remedy instances of child and forced labour, and to also publicly report on these efforts in a way that is comprehensible to the public.
The third component, as I mentioned before, would be to include legal consequences, including penalties, for companies that do not comply.
Fourth, such legislation should be accompanied by an adequate budget and infrastructure to enable public reporting on the law's implementation.
Finally, we'd also encourage the Canadian government to consider legislation that would prohibit the import of any goods that are produced or manufactured using forced labour, slave labour, child labour, or labour of persons who have been trafficked. In the United States, for example, there is legislation of this kind that has been used to block the import of goods made using forced labour in China.
As part of its enforcement, Canada should report publicly on the goods that are banned from Canada because of forced or child labour, outline the specific problems in the countries where the goods are produced, and communicate with those countries and relevant businesses the steps they need to take to address these human rights abuses.
Again, thank you very much for the opportunity to meet with you today. I very much look forward to your questions and dialogue.