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Fashion Brands Investigated in France Over Forced Labor in China

TLL Editor in Chief
Global fashion brands are caught in a geopolitical dilemma, as four companies are under investigation on suspicion of profiting from goods produced using forced labor by imprisoned Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of China.
On the other side of that dilemma is China’s reaction, as the central government has punished several Western fashion brands, like Burberry and Nike, for refusing to use cotton from Xinjiang, and for speaking out about human rights abuses.
However, it’s the cost at home and abroad that may have the greater impact on fashion designers in the West. French prosecutors say they have opened an investigation against four multinational fashion retailers, including Uniqlo France; Inditex (owner of Zara and Bershka); SMCP (owner of Sandro and Maje), and the global footwear giant Skechers.

The investigation was revealed in a story by Mediapart  which outlined a complaint filed in April by the anti-corruption group Sherpa, the Uyghur Institute of Europe, and a Uyghur who was interned in Xinjiang. Sherpa said in a Tweet that the complaint is based on a report on forced labor by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a non-governmental organization. “Multinationals must not profit, with impunity, from the forced labour of Uyghurs,” the Tweet read.

A photo from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute report on alleged human rights abuses in China shows uniformed Uyghur workers waving the Chinese flag. – Photo Courtesy of ASPI

The ASPI report has been hugely controversial in China and globally, and has prompted Chinese backlash against Australia and against fashion companies that either refuse to use products from Xingiang, or that have criticized the Chinese government for its treatment of ethnic minorities in that region.
“The Chinese government has facilitated the mass transfer of Uyghur and other ethnic minority1 citizens from the far west region of Xinjiang to factories across the country,” the ASPI report concludes. “Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 82 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, including Apple, BMW, Gap, Huawei, Nike, Samsung, Sony and Volkswagen.

Since then, several Western brands have pulled back from involvement in Xinjiang, but ASPI says the problem is ongoing. “This report estimates that more than 80,000 Uyghurs were transferred out of Xinjiang to work in factories across China between 2017 and 2019, and some of them were sent directly from detention camps,” ASPI says. “The estimated figure is conservative and the actual figure is likely to be far higher. In factories far away from home, they typically live in segregated dormitories, undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances. Numerous sources, including government documents, show that transferred workers are assigned minders and have limited freedom of movement.”

The Uyghurs are a mainly Muslim, Turkic-speaking minority in China, who make up almost half of the Xinjiang region’s 25 million people. The UN and various human rights groups have estimated more than a million people, made up of both Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, have been detained in prison camps in Xinjiang.

China refutes those claims, denying any human rights abuses, and saying the country has merely provided increased training and employment in Xinjiang, but several brands in the West have taken action to cut their ties with Xinjiang. As reported earlier in The Licensing Letter (see linked story below), several fashion brands including Burberry, Uniqlo, H&M, Nike and Adidas pledged last year to boycott cotton from Xinjiang, and have since been hit by boycotts of their products in China, and by agreements being cancelled with popular social influencers, actors and musicians.

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The investigation in France leaves fashion retailers and producers between a rock and a hard place, as Inditex stated publicly it rejects the accusations, but will cooperate with the investigation and work to clear its name. “We have zero tolerance for all forms of forced labour and have established policies and procedures to ensure this practice does not take place in our supply chain,” the statement said. SMCP made a similar statement, adding it “works with suppliers located all over the world and … does not have direct suppliers in the region mentioned in the press,” while Fast Retailing of Japan said it would work to reaffirm to the investigators that “there is no forced labour in our supply chains.”

Skechers did not comment, saying the company does not comment in cases of pending litigation.

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