Brussels’ chief trade official has urged caution in the face of EU plans to ban products made through forced labor, arguing that such a “sensitive” move could risk a trade reaction.
Valdis Dombrovskis, EU Executive Vice-President for Trade, has warned MEPs in a letter that the European Commission will not rush to propose a law on forced labor. He said production would take more than a year and asked if banning products entering the EU market would be an effective way to stop human rights abuses.
“A ban on imports into the EU would not automatically prevent these products from being manufactured using forced labor, so the problem itself will not go away,” said Dombrovskis in a letter to a group of MEPs on December 22nd.
In September, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced plans for a law that would “ban products on our market that were manufactured through forced labor”. The measure was clearly designed to address the problem of the persecuted Uighur minority in China.
However, Dombrovskis ’remarks signal that Brussels is withdrawing from explicit import bans for fear that they will be viewed as discriminatory trade measures. An EU official said a ban would require a drastic change to the bloc’s customs code and would be difficult to enforce in a bloc where all 27 member states have their own customs authorities.
In contrast, US lawmakers passed a Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act this month requiring companies to demonstrate that imports from China’s Muslim-majority Xinjiang region are not made using forced labor.
In his letter, Dombrovskis said the US measure “cannot be automatically replicated in the EU” and warned that a ban on non-EU imports “could be challenged by our trading partners as it could be perceived as discriminatory”, if it is not also aimed at forced labor within the EU.
“If a ban has to be pursued, it should be a ban on all goods manufactured with forced labor, regardless of where the forced labor took place,” the letter says.
Instead of import bans, Brussels is drafting comprehensive due diligence laws that will force companies to take action against possible human rights violations in their supply chains.
This so-called corporate sustainable governance law is due to appear in the first half of next year and is an “effective means of combating human rights violations in value chains, including forced labor,” said Dombrovskis. He also did not rule out that companies could be forced under the law to withdraw products from the market.
Proponents of a strict forced labor law want the EU to take a stronger stand against China’s detention of more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in labor camps in the cotton-rich region of Xinjiang. The EU, along with the US and the UK, have imposed sanctions on some Chinese officials, but an import ban would be the bloc’s toughest move yet.
Brussels has started introducing limited import bans, including on products from deforestation-prone areas, and a law on batteries, forcing companies to assess human rights risks in their supply chains.