Council of EU Tightens Draft Law Banning Products Made With Forced Labor

Published: 01 February 2024

Sewing MachineThe new European law includes all products of all industry sectors made with forced labor, whether sold in the EU or exported. (Photo: Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels, License)

By Erika Di Benedetto

The Council of the European Union, the EU essential decision maker, has proposed improvements to draft legislation that would ban all products manufactured through forced labor within the European Union (EU), asking for the prohibition to also apply to products bought online and for the strengthening of control mechanisms that would expose such products.

The regulation was proposed by the European Commission on September 14, 2022, and was last drafted by the European Parliament in October 2023.

Now, the Council of the European Union proposes that the law should also apply to products bought online and suggests the creation of a “forced labor single portal”—which will provide tools and relevant information regarding forced labor, improving the coordination and action of law enforcement.

Additionally, the Commission would have a stronger role in investigating and proving if forced labor was used to manufacture a product.

Authorities will check for forced labor risks using information from various sources, and if they find signs of it, they will start an investigation, including checks in the EU or other countries.

In cases where investigations are needed in countries outside the EU, the Commission will reach out to the third countries for cooperation.

If the request is declined, the Commission may decide based on other relevant evidence, marking it as non-cooperation.

If forced labor is proven, the product will be withdrawn and banned.

The Council said that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will also be included in the legislation.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), there are 27.6 million people worldwide trapped in forced labor.

“This hideous crime must be eradicated, and the first step to achieve this consists in breaking the business model of companies that exploit workers,” said Pierre-Yves Dermagne, Belgian Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister for the Economy and Employment.

“With this regulation, we want to make sure that there is no place for their products in our single market, whether they are manufactured in Europe or abroad,” he added.

The Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), a non-governmental organization, welcomed the Council’s position but expressed worries about potential gaps in the text, especially regarding third-country investigations.

Steve Trent, founder of EJF, argued that relying on third-country governments for impartial investigations may weaken the bans, and EU authorities should handle field inspections in these cases. He stressed that international cooperation is crucial but should not involve third countries leading investigations.

“Forced labor poses an existential threat to law-abiding EU companies which cannot compete with illegal and morally-bankrupt practices. Operators that exploit their workforce can massively reduce their costs, gaining an unfair advantage by undercutting their competitors when they sell products on the EU’s single market,” he added.

Furthermore, the Council wants to introduce a “Union Network against Forced Labor Products” for the coordination of law enforcement.

After the Council has formally taken its position, negotiations and talks with the Parliament will soon start to shape the final version of the legislation.