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Holding Canadian Companies Liable for Foreign Labour Abuses?

Thanks to Mark Rowlinson, Canadian legal counsel to the United Steelworkers, for letting me know about this story.  In December 2007, the NDP (Peter Julian, M.P.) introduced a Private Member’s Bill (Bill C-492) the International promotion and protection of Human Rights Act (IPPHRA). Hearings on the Bill are being held today in Ottawa. The Act is modeled on the U.S. Alien Claims Tort Act, which labour and human rights activists have attempted to use to sue American corporations that participate in or are complicit in violations of international law conventions. Private members’ bills usually have little chance of making it into law, but the ideas raised by the Bill are nevertheless very interesting. The Bill addresses the very real problem of corporations benefiting from the human rights abuses of foreign governments.

One difficulty with this type of legislation is that it attempts to apply international legal obligations that apply to governments to private corporate actors. That is, Conventions like ILO Conventions 87 and 98 that deal with freedom of association, including rights to collective bargaining and strike, create obligations for governments, but not employers or corporations. Therefore, it is tricky to establish that a private actor (i.e. a corporation) is liable in tort for breach of an international law convention that actually does not apply to the corporation. This problem has been identified as an obstacle to enforcement of the U.S. legislation. See for example the article, “Corporate Complicity, International Law and the Alien Tort Claims Act” (2001), 26 Yale J. Inter. L. 487 (For York Students, here’s the e-resources link: forcese-alien-tort-claims.pdf) by U. of Ottawa Professor Craig Forcese.

What do you think about the idea of using Canadian tort law to hold corporations liable for labour or human rights abuses that occur in the production of their products in foreign countries? Can you develop a legal argument that would permit a corporation to be held liable for violations of international conventions by a foreign government or a private contractor retained by the corporation?

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