Ottawa’s new initiative was broadly welcomed. CORE’s predecessor, the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility, went from having no profile and no powers in its early years, to a period of dormancy, to a brief revival during which it had no budget and administrative support for only three months of the year. In its 2016-17 annual report the office noted it had to request financial support for every event and activity, and that its attempts to open the door to dialogue with industry players in the extractive sector — oil and gas and mining — had met with limited success.
The office was formally wound down in May of last year. Its final report to Parliament has not yet been tabled.
So no surprise that the federal government drew plaudits with its CORE announcement last January. This would be a world-leading, first-of-its-kind initiative, Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne said at the time. The ombud would be independent and vested with a mandate to investigate allegations of human rights abuses linked to Canadian corporate activity abroad.
Twelve months later, where are we? Global Affairs Canada says that “progress continues” in the selection of the ombudsperson.
In the interim, the Supreme Court of Canada is considering whether the case against Vancouver-based Nevsun Resources, accused of human rights violations at the copper-zinc Bisha mine it operates in Eritrea, should be allowed to proceed in a B.C. court. Nevsun denies the allegations. That case is being closely monitored by a mining industry anxious that Canada not become the forum for overseas activities, especially, as is the case here, when Nevsun argues that the practices in question — forced labour — fell under the control of the Eritrean state.
And shoppers in the U.K. are up in arms over Spice Girls T-shirts sewn, according to the Guardian, by women workers in Bangladesh making less than a living wage through 16-hour days. The T-shirts, ironically, were part of a gender justice charity campaign. A number of retailers in the U.K. have since been swept up in the investigation of the same Bangladeshi factory. The issues of subcontracting, transparency and on-the-ground auditing are once again at issue.
On the surface, copper mining and harassed young women sewing white #IWANNABEASPICEGIRL T-shirts share no commonalities. But one of the key elements of the new responsible enterprise office was to make it multisectoral, broadening from mining and oil and gas to initially include garment manufacture and, within a year of its inception, other undefined business sectors.
Canadian consumers have not forgotten the horror of the Rana Plaza collapse, nor those images of bright-orange Joe Fresh labels among the wreckage.
Attention to potential violations of human rights and the imperative to reinforce what Ottawa calls “responsible business conduct” have only been heightened in the sector. Ten days ago, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership entered into force in Vietnam. Much has been made of ongoing labour law reform in the country, and the “side letter” signed on labour as a result of the trade pact. Yet still, Vietnam has not ratified three fundamental conventions of the International Labour Organization: freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the abolition of forced labour. That casts a long shadow against the Liberals’ proclamation that progressive trade only succeeds when it works for everyone.
What does CORE hope to achieve? The promised “independent fact-finding” suggests it will push beyond the field trips conducted by its predecessor, where a country tour was frequently contained to international offices removed from actual mine site operations. But accomplishing that will require establishing robust in-country alliances.
How such collaborations will work has not been made clear.
At the time of Champagne’s announcement, there were no details on funding, beyond a broad pledge that the office “will operate with a budget sufficient to allow him/her to conduct complex collaborative and independent investigations.”
The power of the office was similarly opaque, beyond rescinding government support services such as trade advocacy, sanctions that were available to CORE’s predecessor.
And then there’s the transparency piece. As I have written previously, in the absence of collaborative resolutions, real-time reports on infractions and remedies should be publicly disclosed.
The government has now had a year to fine-tune its pledge that Canada will lead the charge in the new gold standard for international business operations. We should expect the announcement of the ombudsperson any day now, and a firm outline as to how the office will function.
If that doesn’t happen, the CORE initiative can be pushed over to the promises-not-kept side of the government’s pre-election ledger.