Human Rights Are Not For Sale: Inside the European Union’s Proposal to Combat Forced Labor

Last September, in her State of The Union Speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen unveiled a proposal to ban all goods produced by forced labor from the European Market. Now, nearly one year later, it looks as though that proposition could very well come to pass. 

In a climate marked by excessive consumerism in developed nations, we often forget about the price others have to pay for our goods. By outsourcing much of its manufacturing, the Western world has exported exploitative and forced labor to foreign shores and allowed westerners to turn a blind eye to the dreadful effects of modern slavery and excessive consumption. However, for much of the world’s population, modern slavery is a very real issue. The United Nations reported more than 50 million victims worldwide: a number up 10 million from just five years ago. To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this issue by putting a significant number of people into extreme poverty, making them especially vulnerable to exploitation.

The European Union’s recent proposal looks to take aim at the issue and closely resembles the efforts made by the United States in recent years. While the United States has for the past century banned products originating from forced labor, it wasn’t until 2016 that US Customs and Border Protection started to enforce that ban, and it was from there that America shifted its tolerance level toward forced labor. Some may recall last December when President Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which mandated a forced labor presumption for those goods originating from the Xinjiang region of China. 

The proposition from the EU not only echoes the changing sentiment from the United States but takes it a step further. Instead of targeting a single country, it targets the practice of forced labor more broadly. The legislation aims to prohibit those products that involve forced labor of any kind from entering the European market. This means that if forced labor, as it is defined under international law, is used across any part of the entire supply chain, the goods cannot be imported into or sold in Europe. In order to enforce this, EU states would designate specific authorities to follow a two-phase investigation. They would first conduct a preliminary investigation to assess the likelihood that the goods originated from, or involved forced labor. Then, should the authorities find sufficient reason to believe that the goods are ill-gotten, they are permitted to order either the withdrawal and/or the disposal of the relevant goods

In addition to its proposition, the EU also leaves an open door for further measures to be adopted and gives its member states liberality in punishing individuals and corporations who may violate its newly adopted measures. Many governmental figures and labor experts have highlighted the effect this will have on corporation’s behavior abroad. Executive Scott Nova from the Workers Rights Consortium explained that this was extremely significant as it forces brands to understand “legal liability in the context of the labor practices of their overseas suppliers.” 

The focal point of this proposition is corporate accountability and ending the practice of forced labor around the world, but its effects extend far beyond economics. For those of us interested in international law, and the efficacy of international regulations, this represents tremendous progress. While EU law is distinctly different from international law, its presence and success legitimize ideas of multi-state and international legal systems that can govern international actors, and more specifically, corporations. While this proposal still needs to be presented before the European Parliament and Council, and will not see enforcement until, at the earliest, 2025, its existence and likely success represents a shift in the European and American view of international corporations and international law. Whether or not this shift will be short-lived, or long-lasting, is still up for debate, but in the meantime, we will have to wait and see if there is a response from the United States and continue to speculate on the future of international law and organizations more broadly.