Leader Or Laggard?

By Lauren Ravon and Marty Warren

Adopting human rights and environmental due diligence legislation would help to advance Canada’s feminist foreign policy goals and gender equality measures in aid, trade, diplomacy, and defence.

Canada is facing a major test of its human rights and feminist credentials. Will the government put effective safeguards in place to ensure Canadian companies proactively respect human rights and the environment abroad?

Our friend and colleague Kalpona Akter, a lifelong labour activist in the Bangladesh garment sector, has told us, “If my mum had received a wage we could live on, I wouldn’t have had to toil in a factory from the age of 12.”

Akter’s story is not unique, and living-wage violations are not the only human rights violations to occur in the fashion world. When the women who make our clothes try to form a union or ask for a raise, their jobs are at risk. Nine out of 10 workers in Bangladesh don’t make enough money to live on or afford food for their families. The women who make our clothes make poverty wages while the profits of Canadian fashion brands soar.

It’s promising that Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan’s mandate letter commits to “introduce legislation to eradicate forced labour from Canadian supply chains and ensure that Canadian businesses operating abroad do not contribute to human rights abuses.” The minister has made supply chain legislation his priority and is currently studying existing private members’ bills tabled in Parliament.

The question is: what kind of legislation will stop the abuse? Learning from other jurisdictions provides some insights.

Robust and comprehensive legislation must include the full range of human rights and have clear consequences for bad behaviour. Effective due diligence is not achieved through voluntary measures, reporting-only laws, or box-ticking compliance exercises. Canadian companies operating or sourcing abroad must be legally obligated to identify, prevent, mitigate, and provide remedies for all human rights violations and environmental damage caused by their operations.

Bill C-262, the Corporate Responsibility to Respect Human Rights Act, currently before Parliament, meets global standards on mandatory human rights due diligence. It would ensure that Canadian companies across economic sectors proactively respect human rights and would help create a level playing field for business.

Another bill is Senate public bill S-211 on modern slavery reporting, which just passed second reading in the House with government support. Forced and child labour are deplorable and evidence has shown that progress on their elimination has stalled. This modern slavery reporting bill taps into the abhorrence Canadians have for such exploitation, but unfortunately does not create the legislative framework or tools to combat it.

Incredulously, S-211 requires companies to report on whether forced or child labour exist in their supply chains, but does not actually create a legal obligation on companies to stop the practice or to remedy the situation if found. S-211 is modelled on a similar law in the U.K. The experience of other jurisdictions shows that legislation centred on reporting has proven ineffective in addressing egregious labour abuses in global supply chains.

Some might suggest to “not let perfect be the enemy of good.” But is S-211 good? Modern slavery acts and their reporting-only requirements have not brought the change they promised to bring. Adopting S-211 would be like buying a train ticket to nowhere and expecting to arrive at your destination.

If the government is serious on stopping human rights abuses, a bill must include all human rights, robust accountability, and pathways to remedy. As Akter demonstrated in the introduction, her rights as a child were intimately connected to the labour rights of her mother. We will not protect children and eliminate forced labour by ignoring the indivisibility of human rights or adopting measures that do not enforce accountability.

A country’s foreign policy is not limited to the actions of state institutions, such as its embassies and armed forces, but also includes the international operations and business dealings of the private sector. Adopting human rights and environmental due diligence legislation would help to advance Canada’s feminist foreign policy goals and gender equality measures in aid, trade, diplomacy, and defence.

Canada’s mining sector is active in at least 100 countries and Canadian retailers import apparel from every continent, depending on a workforce largely dominated by women. Without oversight of the private sector, the Canadian government risks harming some of its bilateral relationships and setting back its feminist foreign policy objectives.

We are entering a critical moment for corporate accountability in Canada. After years of failed half measures, it is high time we deal meaningfully with the conduct of Canadian business abroad. Let this be Canada’s coming of age and let us learn from the European Union, France, Germany, and Norway with ambition, urgency, and pride.

Our organizations and global partners, representing millions of workers and feminists, believe Canada can and must do the right thing. We need mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation in Canada. The time is now.

Human rights and accountability are non-negotiable.

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill Times on June 15, 2022.

Lauren Ravon is the executive director of Oxfam Canada. Marty Warren is the Canadian national director of the United Steelworkers.

Stuff Companies Say

When fashion companies tell you about where their clothes are made and what they pay garment workers … There’s something missing.

Stuff companies say

We are already committed to paying a living wage.


That’s missing a lot. A credible commitment requires a timeline with milestones showing how and when a company will achieve living wages in its supply chain. It’s great to know a company cares about ethical sourcing, but promises are empty without real timelines and plans in place against which a company can be held accountable.

Stuff companies say

We cannot commit to anything publicly. This needs to be quiet.


That’s missing a lot. A commitment towards ensuring payment of living wages in your supply chain can only be credible if it is public and time-bound. Consumers want to know which companies are making progress towards living wages for the women who make our clothes. And your suppliers are more likely to get on board with living wage plans if your company is publicly stating your commitment.

Stuff companies say…

We take social responsibility very seriously and are working on a roadmap to pay living wages.


That’s missing a lot. Why don’t you solidify that plan by making a clear, public commitment right now that outlines your time frame?

Stuff companies say

There is no universally agreed methodology for calculating living wages, so we benchmark against the legal minimum wage. We are working with stakeholders to adopt a living wage benchmark.


That’s missing a lot. I know well-established living wage calculation methodologies are already in place – you can find them on the Global Living Wage Coalition and Asia Floor Wage Alliance websites. This is no excuse for continuing the practice of allowing poverty wages.

Stuff companies say

We only work with suppliers that respect their workforce, which includes paying living wages.


That’s missing a lot. I know well-established living wage calculation methodologies are already in place – you can find them on the Global Living Wage Coalition and Asia Floor Wage Alliance websites. This is no excuse for continuing the practice of allowing poverty wages.

Stuff companies say

We have not published the factory list but we have full traceability of those factories and work with them closely to improve working conditions


That’s missing a lot. It’s great that you know who your suppliers are, but you need to publish your factory list now. Many major brands around the globe have done this, including Lululemon — and you are lagging behind. Not publishing the factory list can put workers in danger and means you are not taking public responsibility for the conditions in the factories you use to make a profit. It’s high time to publish the list now to allow workers and others to alert you of any abuses in these factories.

Keep reading Stuff Companies Say … And How To Respond:


Join us and have your say by telling @Roots @Aritzia @Lululemon @Herschel and @JoeFresh to pay a living wage to the women that make our clothes. Sign the pledge and demand that Canadian brands make a credible, public, time-bound commitment to paying a living wage.

Together, we can hold Canadian brands accountable for #WhatSheMakes.

2022 Naughty or Nice

In the midst of today’s cost of living crisis, every worker deserves to be paid a living wage. This holiday season, we want to know which Canadian fashion brands are acting “Naughty” or “Nice” on the issue of living wages for the women who make our clothes.

We’re demanding that Canadian fashion brands stand with the women who make our clothes and improve the working conditions of the millions of garment workers who toil in factories to meet their clothing orders.

If fashion brands paid living wages, the women who make our clothes, and their families, would no longer be struggling in poverty. However, this year, none of the brands is fully on its way to ensuring living wages in supplier factories.

Which brands have made a real commitment to a living wage, and who is lagging behind? Our first annual Naughty or Nice List reveals how Joe Fresh, Lululemon, Aritzia, Herschel Supply Co. and Roots stack up.

Our Thoughts On Bill S-211

On November 18, 2022, Oxfam Canada submitted a recommendation on Bill S-211 to the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development. In it, we call on the Minister of Labour to introduce robust and comprehensive mandatory due diligence legislation that includes all human rights and all business sectors.

What is Bill S-211

Bill S-211, also known as the Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act, is a legislative proposal that aims to enhance transparency and combat forced labor and child labor in supply chains. We don’t believe it goes far enough.

Why it matters

Canada is at a crossroads regarding corporate accountability and responsible business conduct. A strong legislative framework is needed that recognizes that all companies have a responsibility to respect human rights.

Canada’s human rights obligations include respect for all human rights, including women’s rights and the right to a living wage. Parliament should adopt effective legislation that includes adherence to all internationally recognized human rights. Companies must ensure they pay their workers a living wage and mitigate, prevent and remedy human rights and environmental harm.

Canadian legislation should apply to all companies of all sizes and sectors, and include the entire supply chain, and should include protections against re-victimization and ensure guarantees of non-recurrence. It should also include a feminist analysis, and be broad in scope.

Bill S-211 does none of the above, and we encourage all parties and Parliament to work together to introduce effective legislation.

We call on the Foreign Affairs Committee to table a more robust and progressive bill.

Read our full submission on Bill S-211:

Rana Plaza – A Graphic Novel

Read Rana Plaza, a graphic novel by artist François Simard which tells the story of the Rana Plaza building collapse.

We hope that this will encourage you to act in solidarity with Bangladeshi workers in order to create a world filled with justice and solidarity.